by James Coleman —
As the dust settled from an acrimonious Nov. 17 Memphis City Council meeting, where accusations of race-bias and personal insults were hurled following a vote for council chairperson for the upcoming year, an amendment to the rules of decorum was contemplated during Tuesday’s (Dec. 1) session.
“For me, it’s not only a question of right or wrong, it’s also questions of how we would like our meetings to be conducted. And the level or respect you have for the seats, which we occupy,” said Councilman JB Smiley Jr., who introduced the amendment.
The proposed change attempts to clarify what behavior is permissible during council meetings. Members would be expected to address others in an orderly manner and refrain from making “personal, impertinent, slanderous, or profane remarks” of fellow council members, staff or public.
Violators who “disrupt, disturb, or otherwise impedes” a meeting will be asked to curb their behavior at the discretion of the presiding officer.
If the problem persists, the chairperson will determine how to proceed with the meeting. The decision would then be put up for a vote.
“The amendment before this body states simply and explicitly what behavior and language is deemed impermissible. Our current rules only allude to the quorum. It is my belief that we take it one step further,” said Smiley.
Last month’s fireworks started after Vice Chair Frank J. Colvett defeated Councilman Martavius Jones on an 8-5 vote. Casting the pro-business Republican as being at odds with Jones’ progressive leanings, Jones also blamed Colvett and others for blocking Councilwoman Rhonda Logan from being appointed to a vacant council seat two years ago. It was implied that race was the deciding factor, not qualifications.
A complaint from Smiley was logged to current Chairwoman Patrice J. Robinson, following the outburst.
Councilman Edmond Ford Sr. went step further by lobbing personal insults.
Robinson said, “During our last meeting there were statements made during the debate about the election of the 2020-21 chairperson that one member complained to me as being inappropriate.
“As I understand it, the complaint by that councilmember has been withdrawn. But he has requested that we consider a rule change to address this situation.”
Current procedure gives the chairperson direction of the council and how to preserve order. The sergeant-at-arms is under their discretion. The chair also decides questions of order and appoints committees.
“In my opinion, there is no iron-clad rule that can be created to govern how to, for any particular chairperson, to preserve the order during a meeting. That is a question of judgment and influence of each chairman, especially during COVID-19.
“We are in electronic meetings and we do not have our sergeant at arms present at each individual home. I would implore our members to be courteous and respectful to each other and the public,” Robinson said.
She also warned members that their microphones could be cut off for the remainder of a meeting. Further debate on an item by the offending member could also be quashed. They also could lose the right to chair or participate in a committee.
She recommended an interpersonal approach to unseemly behavior in the future.
Sometimes the most effective solution is peer pressure. So, for those who are friendly to transgressors, don’t stick your head in the sand. Reach out to your colleagues and try to counsel or mediate different behaviors,” said Robinson.
The amendment was seconded by Jones, who mused about an erosion in the public trust and public perception in the body – and politics in general.
“All politics starts at a local level. This is just an attempt for us to respect one another and to be mindful of how we project ourselves before the public that has put their trust in us to conduct the city’s business. I adhered to this when I was on the school board,” Jones said.”
He also said that the chair serves at the will of the council, and if they fail to act in similar instances, it is incumbent on the council to step in.
“The chair only has the authority that a majority of this body delegates or delineates to the chairman of this body. So, I support this,” said Jones.
Chairman-elect Colvett and Councilman Ford did not address the issue.