Racial Divide in Council’s Vote on Speaking Time for Former Officials


Resized_20191007_161614001(APN) ATLANTA — At the Monday, October 11, 2019 Full Council Meeting, the Atlanta City Council voted to send back to committee, a proposal that seeks to cut the public speaking time of current and former elected officials down to two minutes.  The vote was almost completely along racial lines.


The vote was eight to six.  Councilman Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large) was recorded as not voting, but he spoke in favor of the motion to refer.


In favor of the motion to refer back to Committee on Council were every Member of the Council who is Black: Antonio Brown (District 3), Cleta Winslow (District 4), Natalyn Archibong (District 5), Andrea Boone (District 10), Marci Overstreet (District 11), Joyce Sheperd (District 12), Bond, and Andre Dickens (Post 3-at-large).  Carla Smith (District 1) also voted in favor.


Opposed to the motion to refer were every Member of Council who is White with the exception of Carla Smith: Jennifer Ide (District 6), Howard Shook (District 7), J.P. Matzigkeit (District 8), Dustin Hillis (District 9), and Matt Westmoreland (Post 2-at-large).   Amir Farokhi (District 2) also opposed the motion.


Most of the current and elected officials who have historically addressed the Council and are impacted by the proposed cuts to public speaking are Black: former Mayor Andrew Young, former State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), State Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas (D-Atlanta), former State Rep. Douglas Dean (D-Atlanta), State Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta).


In sum, it would appear the White people on the Council are tired of hearing from Black people.


The City’s historical tradition has been to allow current and former elected officials, many of whom are aging seniors, unlimited time to speak.


This history was grounded in Atlanta’s special role in the Civil Rights Movement, which achieved the equality and empowerment of Black people, especially through the securing of Black representation in positions of elected office.  Many of the current and former elected officials were from the Movement, if not the hopes and dreams of the Movement.


Today’s iteration of the Atlanta City Council has been engaged in a ceaseless attack on the historical traditions in Atlanta’s city government that have been rooted in respect, rooted in community, and rooted in the ideals of participatory democracy.  


This Council has attacked our public delegations, has attacked the tradition of deference to current and former elected officials, and has limited proclamations honoring members of the community.


In December 2018, the current Council voted to restrict current elected officials to ten minutes, and former elected officials to six minutes.  Now, they propose to cut them down to two minutes.


The rule applies to any current or former elected official.  That means if former President Barack Obama visited Atlanta, he’d get two minutes.  Gov. Nathan Deal would get two minutes. U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) would get two minutes.  Former Councilman C.T. Martin (District 10), who dedicated his life to the City of Atlanta, would get two minutes.


And why?  Councilwoman Ide said she received an opinion from the Law Department that giving more time to current and former elected officials is impermissible under the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteen Amendment.


However, APN made a Georgia Open Records Act request for any and all written legal opinions received by Councilwoman Ide, and she responded that none exists.


Thus, the Law Department has not even issued a written opinion to support their proposed cuts to public speaking.


Senior City Attorney Amber A. Robinson declined to discuss her opinion by phone with the present writer, citing attorney-client privilege.


Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong (District 5) pushed Robinson to justify her opinion in both the Committee Meeting and Full Council Meeting.


Robinson replied that Atlanta’s public comment rule is “content-based.”  


However, Archibong, who is an attorney, pushed back on that notion.  


“When you say it would be content-based, I don’t understand that,” Archibong said.  “When someone is an elected official or former elected official, how can there be the assumption that there is going to be this content-based bias?”


After all, the rule is based on who the speaker is, not on what they say or don’t say.  Former Mayor Shirley Franklin could come and read from the phone book for six minutes under the current rule.


“To make classifications… based on who the speaker is, I believe calls in question whether or not it would be content-based based on the function or purpose of the actual speech, and I believe that is potentially problematic,” Robinson said.


Councilwoman Ide admitted the legal argument “may not be an absolute slam dunk,” but urged it is a safer route to take to go this way.


Robinson cited a case, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona (2015), in support of her position.  However, the case is not directly applicable and does not support the propositions of the Law Department.


“I believe we go in the wrong direction when we limit speech of any kind,” Councilman Bond said.


“I will not be supporting this.  I have been here since 1991 as a Council Aide and I really don’t understand how, all of a sudden, this becomes an issue.  We have to allow the people to speak,” Councilwoman Boone said.


“This is not something that I agree with.  I think that our former and elected officials presently, when they have an issue, they should be able to speak longer,” Boone said.


Boone noted that any member of the public can also get ten minutes by receiving the donated time of other members of the public, pursuant to the public comment delegation rules.  Up to five members of the public can form a delegation, which then receives ten minutes. (Delegations previously had sixteen minutes but were cut by the current Council in December 2018.)


Ide assured the Council that if they wanted to give any one current or former elected official time to speak, that they could allow them to give a “presentation,” instead of public comment.


Council President Felicia Moore said, however, that she did not see the purpose of the legislation, if the Council intends to give some current or former elected officials time to speak under another label.


APN has conferred with constitutional scholar Gerry Weber and Prof. Tanya Washington of Georgia State University School of Law, who each agree Atlanta’s public comment rules granting more time to current and former elected officials are perfectly constitutional.


State Rep. Thomas, former State Rep. Dean, and former State Sen. Fort each made public comments opposing the legislation.


The legislation will come up again for further consideration in Committee on Council on Monday, October 21, 2019.


(END / Copyright Atlanta Progressive News / 2019)

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