Quinn Kicks Public Out (Update)
April 30th, 2008
In the first significant disturbance since the Viola Plummer incident, Council Speaker Christine Quinn ordered the balcony of the council chamber be cleared this afternoon after a large group of Harlem rezoning opponents and supporters created a so-called disturbance.
The council approved the rezoning by a vote of 47 to 2, with members Charles Barron and Tony Avella dissenting.
Quinn’s move was criticized on the floor by several representatives, including Councilmember Helen Foster, who said if they are going to close the meeting to the general public (which is what they essentially did since the only people allowed on the council floor are staff members and press) they should do it for any disturbance — whether it is cheers of approval or heckling of dissent.
Equal treatment must be given to all groups, she added, and the council must ensure it does not eject anyone “based on color.”
“We have set a bar here today,” said Foster.
Noticeably disturbed by the heckling, Councilmember Inez Dickens, who represents a majority of the 125th Street throughway, challenged the perception that Harlem lost out in the rezoning — which will require 46 percent of housing be income targeted.
While calls of “sell out” sailed down from the chamber’s second-story balcony, Dickens said, “I don’t need anyone to document my commitment to my community. I was born and raised in Harlem.”
It is not unusual for catcalls to come from the council’s balcony — similar disturbances have occurred over the past year to varying degrees, most recently during the Columbia University rezoning. This is the first occasion in Quinn’s tenure as speaker that the balcony has been cleared.
Clearing the chamber is allowed under the City Council’s rules, which state:
3.10. Order, Decorum – The presiding officer shall preserve order and decorum. In the event of disturbance or disorderly conduct in the Chamber, lobby or gallery, the presiding officer may cause the same to be cleared.
The state’s Open Meetings Law is mute on whether government bodies can close meetings based on disturbances. Exemptions in the law (available here) would not apply to this incident.
UPDATE: According to Robert Freeman, executive director at the state Committee on Open Government, the council may have acted appropriately.
Here are his condensed comments:
By Courtney Gross on April 30, 2008, 5:14 pm
“Certainly a public body like the City Council has the authority to keep decorum… If there was no way of distinguishing those that are disruptive to those that are not, perhaps it might have been reasonable… Alternatively, the council might have adjourned their meeting and reconvened at a time when ground rules clearly could have been established and returned to civility.”
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