Thursday, April 15, 2004

Council votes not to respect shouts of hate

Peter Bronson

I was looking forward to an ugly debate over civility at City Hall Wednesday. You just don't come across oxymorons like that every day.

It's like a tax check-off to save endangered tax cuts. Or a 9-11 commission to find out why we were surprised by a surprise attack.

But City Hall tops them all. They might have the greatest collection of oxymorons in the whole wide world of rhetorical sports.

A parade of certifiable yahoos lines up at the microphone each week to shout profanities, insults, racist slurs and misdemeanor stupidities. And then they put the cherry on top of the mud pie by demanding ... respect.

Council members stare at their desks or listen with blank faces like judges at a bad talent show.

If the rants go too far, the mayor might ask a cop to eject someone. But mostly, they sit there and take it. The shouters know the trick is to dump the sludge in the last 15 seconds of their two minutes of microphone fame. Those who get ejected come back next week for an encore.

So Councilman Pat DeWine proposed a new rule: Anyone ejected from a council meeting will be suspended from public comments for 60 days.

But six votes to pass it were not a sure thing.

This is the same City Hall that had a riot in a Law and Public Safety meeting - a classic oxymoron. So hearing that council might not pass tougher rules of behavior was like hearing that New York City can't get enough votes to deny a hotel reservation to Osama Bin Laden.

But City Council came through. Everyone voted yes except Chris Smitherman. He seems to think cops who are even accused of using the N-word five years ago should be fired - with a real torch - but people who shout and scream it at council meetings just don't get enough respect.

"We can't arbitrarily say what is disruptive and what's not," he argued, drawing disruptive applause (an almost certain indication that you're on the wrong side of an issue at City Hall). "What policies do we put forward that bring this kind of thing on?" he asked. "We must hear the voice of the people."

The other council members showed amazing self-restraint. They should have answered that the only policy needed to bring it on is a plugged-in microphone. The voice of these people sounds like the hate-speech dictionary.

They did explain that the real "voice of the people'' is being bullied and drowned out by the shouting yahoos.

"Disruption is contrary in my mind to free speech,'' said David Crowley, while someone waved a sign saying "Mayor (n-word) Charlie.''

Mayor Charlie Luken banged a gavel to stop the heckling and jeering. "I can't hear the solicitor because of the bullhorn (outside)," he said.

Smitherman proposed his own anti-disruption amendment - drawing more disruptive applause. He said citizens should be able to start over if a council member is not paying attention. Welcome to 14 hours of mandatory verbal abuse.

"It just gets worse every week,'' DeWine said before the meeting. "Last week we had all these kids down there, 10-year-olds visiting City Hall, and these guys were just screaming."

"What people saw in the riots was no sense of order and it started here.''

Four years later, nine out of 10 elected leaders of Cincinnati

agree that name-calling, obscenity, slander and threats are not a good idea at public meetings.

I guess progress in Cincinnati is not an oxymoron.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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