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Durango City Council considers resolution to keep public discourse at meetings on-topic

Hate speech, requests for Israel-Hamas cease-fire prompt proposal for formal policy
Durango City Council will consider a resolution on Tuesday to prohibit requests for resolutions and public comments unrelated to city business. The agenda item was proposed by Mayor Melissa Youssef at the Feb. 20 meeting after a second round of Durango Palestinian Solidarity Coalition members called on councilors to support a cease-fire resolution regarding the Israel-Hamas war. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

During public comment periods recently at Durango City Council meetings, some residents have been persistent in asking the city to adopt a resolution demanding a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war.

Other municipalities have adopted similar resolutions, and members of the Durango Palestinian Solidarity Coalition think Durango should add its voice to the chorus.

Instead, City Council on Tuesday will consider putting an end to that kind of discourse – at least during public comment periods – with some councilors saying such speech is off-topic from the stated business before City Council.

Mayor Melissa Youssef has proposed a resolution “that would curtail requests for resolutions concerning religion and international politics.”

City Council voted unanimously in support of having a resolution drafted with the understanding it would be discussed at a later meeting.

The draft resolution – included in the City Council’s Tuesday agenda packet – would prohibit consideration of legislative matters regarding “international political controversy, ideological or religious beliefs, or individual conviction.” It makes an exception for issues that would directly impact the city’s governance.

In layman’s terms, the resolution would limit comments during public participation to city-related matters, said city attorney Mark Morgan.

Councilors must now decide if they want to limit public discourse to city business during regularly scheduled meetings. If they do, they could instead hold designated forums, in which a range of topics could be discussed, he said.

Limiting the scope of public comments would help keep things on track, he said. It would also allow City Council to shut down hate speech without running afoul of people’s First Amendment rights – because the rule would be the same for everyone.

Morgan pointed to a “Zoom bombing” incident in January in which online users crashed a City Council meeting during a public participation segment of the meeting. The users logged into the in-person and virtual meeting and promoted antisemitic hate speech, prompting disgust and outrage among attendees.

The only reason the city was able to boot the bad actors from that meeting was because it already informally keeps discourse focused on city business.

But the city doesn’t have a formal policy when it comes to limiting public comments.Morgan advised councilors that the longer they allow people to speak about matters unrelated to city business, the more of an argument bad actors have in saying City Council allows free-ranging topics to be discussed until they don’t like the speech.

The resolution aims to resolve that.

“If we allowed the stuff to continue the way it’s been going, it’d be very, very difficult to stop the more offensive speech unrelated to the city,” Morgan said.

If the resolution is passed, residents are still welcome to attend City Council meetings and get mean and “ugly” about something the city is doing they don’t like, he said. The resolution is intended to prevent hate speech and distractions about issues outside City Council’s purview.

City Councilor Jessika Buell said members of the Durango Palestinian Solidarity Coalition have been kind at city meetings and she loves that they are willing to speak their minds. But councilors have declined to take up their cause, and it is time to get back to city business, “whether it’s housing or parks and rec or transit or streets – and creating dialogue around that.”

She asked what is next if City Council were to adopt a cease-fire resolution. Should it then weigh in on the Russia-Ukraine war? What about the Alabama Supreme Court ruling that embryos created by in vitro fertilization should be considered children?

“Activists serve a critical role in our lives and in our nation, and they’re here to push us and they’re here to make us uncomfortable,” she said. “But in city government, which is where we’re at now, at some point there has to be a line and a balance in that.”

Councilor Gilda Yazzie shared similar sentiments. But she has not made up her mind about limiting public comments to city matters, saying she looks forward to further discussion with colleagues Tuesday.

She said she also appreciates activists, but she wondered what might be achievable if people put as much energy into local issues as they did into the conflict overseas.

Youssef declined to comment about the resolution, and councilors Olivier Bosmans and Dave Woodruff did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Palestinians inspect the rubble of destroyed buildings after an Israeli airstrike in Nusseirat refugee camp, central Gaza strip, on Thursday. (Adel Hana/Associated Press)

Gina Jannone, a member of the Durango Palestinian Solidarity Coalition, said in an email to the The Durango Herald on Friday that the coalition has collected over 500 signatures for a petition to City Council to adopt a cease-fire resolution.

At City Council meetings, coalition members have argued that the United States’ military aid to Israel’s campaign in Gaza is funded by taxpaying Americans, and that is reason enough for City Council to consider the coalition’s request.

At the Feb. 6 City Council meeting, coalition member Keaton Griffith said, “The basic fact that we are taxpayers makes us complicit in this genocide. For example, the Biden administration has twice bypassed Congress to send hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons to Israel.”

He said Colorado companies have received $223 million in foreign military financing to provide material aid to Israel since 1996.

Griffith’s dollar figure is backed up by the Jewish Virtual Library, which says Colorado companies received over $18 million in foreign military financing in 2015, and companies including Aerospace Technologies in Boulder, Conduant Corp. in Longmont, Liteye Systems Inc. in Centennial and InfoTrust Inc. in Colorado Springs have received nearly $223 million in foreign military financing since 1996.

Other coalition members referenced a 2016 law requiring Colorado’s state pension plan, Public Employee’s Retirement Association, to identify companies that have boycotted Israel and divest their investments in those companies.

Colorado Politics reported that state lawmakers rejected an effort to repeal that law on Feb. 26.

Griffith rhetorically asked where else he is supposed to go if not local government to “shift the cultural tide toward justice on a national level.”

“If it’s not appropriate for us to discuss this here and now during an active genocide, then when will it ever be appropriate?” he said. “Speaking for myself, I have seen that I can’t trust our leaders on a national level to take any meaningful stance against this unrelenting violence. They, in fact, continue to enable it.”

On Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden announced he will begin deploying airdrops with aid directly to Gaza, bypassing Israel.

“We need to do more, and the United States will do more,” Biden said, according to Reuters.

The first aid deployment was delivered on Saturday by U.S. military C-130 cargo planes, which dropped food pallets over Gaza on Saturday, The Associated Press reported.


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