May 25, 2010

Falmouth councilors vote down new rules

The proposal to restrict public interaction with elected officials is rejected after a lively discussion.

By Dennis Hoey dhoey@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

FALMOUTH — The Town Council decided Monday night against approving a change to rules that would have restricted how the public interacts with elected officials.

Councilors voted 7-0 to leave their rules of order unchanged, but a lively discussion before the vote underscored the seriousness of a situation that has developed between certain councilors and a resident.

The proposed rule change would have prohibited residents from making personal attacks, threatening physical harm, using abusive and obscene language, and slanderous or libelous language.

The changes also would have authorized the council to limit comment on items that are not scheduled for public hearing.

“I really don’t think it’s necessary because I don’t think it will work,” said Councilor Fred Chase. “Some people obey the rules, others don’t.”

The issue of changing council rules emerged after councilors Bonnie Rodden and Cathy Breen announced that they had grown tired of attacks against them by  Michael Doyle, a resident.

Breen, who chairs the council, released a list of names, adjectives and phrases that Doyle had directed at her at council meetings or in e-mails. Breen said Doyle used terms such as “banshee, snide, abusive, idiotic and condescending” to describe her behavior.
Doyle does not deny that he used those terms.

Rodden released a letter sent to her by Doyle, in which he tries to discourage her from seeking re-election. The letter makes references to her family, and threatens legal action.

While their colleagues criticized Doyle for “crossing the line,” they also said current rules should be adequate.

“I believe we have at our disposal today the tools to require the public to behave in a respectful manner. We don’t need to change the rules and we don’t want to discourage free speech,” said Councilor Tony Payne.

Earlier this month, the Maine Civil Liberties Union took the council to task for proposing rule changes, calling them a “direct contravention of the First Amendment.”

“Unpleasant comments are an unavoidable part of the hurly burly of living in a free and open democracy,” the MCLU said in a letter dated May 12.

“I’m a great defender of free speech,” said Rodden, who is a journalist. “But there are times when it has gone too far.”

Breen called the language directed at her by Doyle “deeply personal and mean-spirited,” but said she would exercise her authority as chair to ensure that council meetings remain orderly and civil.

Doyle addressed the council twice Monday night. Though his remarks were toned down from previous meetings, he remained defiant and said he will start a petition drive aimed at curbing what he perceives as rude behavior by some councilors.

Doyle’s petition also seeks to establish a system for punishing any councilor who misrepresents facts by suspending them from four consecutive council meetings.

“I don’t ever want to limit anyone’s ability to speak freely,” said Councilor Teresa Pierce. “That said, it’s unfortunate that we have one person who doesn’t seem to understand what decorum means.”

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