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Mayor enforces Council decorum rules, ejects two speakers from City Hall

Friday, August 26, 2011 by Michael Kanin

After months of loud and often abusive interactions from a handful of regular Council attendees, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell ejected two of the more recognizable irritants from Thursday’s meeting. The action came as questions arose over a recent limit on the number of City Council items on which an individual can speak.


The topic has received some attention in the week since Leffingwell first announced the policy. The Mayor was quick to draw boundaries, and offered warnings to those he felt had come close to that line.


Ronnie Gjemre – who most Council observers will recognize as Ronnie “Reeferseed” – was   dismissed during the time that the Council specifically sets aside for Citizens’ Communication. Gjemre, who is not a resident of Austin, pulled up just short of a signature exhaling sound that he makes as part of his introduction. Leffingwell later told In Fact Daily that it was Gjemre’s repeated fart noises that caused him to be ejected.


“You will stop. Step back, your time is up,” the Mayor said.


Gjemre continued anyway, as two Austin Police Officers approached the podium where he stood. They escorted him from the building and gave him a warning for criminal trespass. Should Gjemre elect to return to City Hall before his year ban expires, the warning would become a criminal trespass charge.


Frequent speaker John Bush made a more symbolic stand. Later in the afternoon, after Leffingwell enforced the limit on speeches and denied Bush another trip to the podium, the Libertarian activist stood and began speaking.


“I signed up to speak on this item, Mr. Mayor; you’re misconstruing the City Code…I will not have my First Amendment rights violated by you, Mr. Mayor,” he said. “We intend to file a civil suit, our rights have already been violated today.”


Corporal Mike Bowen of APD’s Executive Protection Team and Officer Cory Ehrler escorted Bush out of City Hall and issued a warning that he would not be welcome at City Hall for the next year. Bush videotaped the incident on his iPhone. After receiving the warning, Bush asked the officers a series of questions, which Bowen and Ehrler patiently answered. He was told that his legal remedy would be a civil suit.


City Hall security guards took photos of Bush. If he returns to City Hall before the end of his ban, officers said that he would be arrested.


On Thursday evening, Bush issued a press release that informed media about a candle light vigil that would be held at City Hall “to mourn the death of free speech.” An In Fact Daily reporter counted seven people at the vigil.


The release also contained a link to a posting of the Channel 6 footage of Gjemre’s removal. As of 8pm Thursday, it had just over 300 views.


On Tuesday, frequent speaker Debbie Russell asked in an email to members of the City Council and City Attorney Karen Kennard if the Mayor’s policy had violated the Open Meetings Act. The email included a forwarded draft of a note Russell sent to Travis County Attorney David Escamilla.


I believe the Mayor is overreaching in his interpretation…as per his new rule he instituted at Council last Thursday…and would like a. your opinion on this matter and b. your opinion on whether you could seek advice from the (Attorney General),” she wrote.


Yesterday, Kennard offered a lengthy opinion about why the Mayor had not overstepped his authority. “There have been several Texas court opinions and Attorney General opinions that say (the) Open Meetings Act does not grant the public the right to speak,” she said. “You can set reasonable local rules about how people will be allowed to speak as long as they are not arbitrary. It is my opinion that the rules the Council has adopted are not arbitrary.”

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