County ethics panel blocks speech limits
By Chad Selweski, Macomb Daily Staff Writer
Proposal to ban audience attacks on county commissioners fails The county board’s Ethics Committee, which has met only once in the past four years, convened Monday to consider a rule that was not aimed at the ethics of elected officials but rather at the conduct of members of the public attending board meetings. The nine-member Ethics and Rules Committee gathered to consider a change in board rules that would require members of the audience to act in a civil manner and to avoid threats, slander or name-calling against board members.The resolution would also ban personal attacks on any county elected or appointed official and would mandate that all remarks be directed at the 26-member board, not an individual commissioner. But the proposal, introduced by board Chairman Paul Gieleghem, went down to an 8-1 defeat after a spirited debate. Some commissioners suggested the resolution was unconstitutional. Commissioner Ken Lampar, the Sterling Heights Democrat who chairs the committee, said speculation abounded but the proposed rule change was apparently not based on any single incident at a board meeting. Over the past three decades, board meetings have often become heated, with the animosity sometimes stoked by angry audience participation. But Lampar, a former 15-year administrator for the county Prosecutor’s Office, said that in his many years of attending board meetings he has never witnessed a session that got out of hand. There have been very few incidents where public participation has made me feel uncomfortable, said Lampar, a freshman commissioner. Those attending board meetings are allowed to speak for five minutes after stating their name and address. But they are not allowed to engage in a back-and-forth dialog with commissioners. Critics of the proposed rule change said that a free exchange at government meetings is essential. Commissioner Carey Torrice said that impassioned, personal attacks among commissioners often take place in the board’s coffee room, away from public view, so restricting residents’ comments is hypocritical. This is silly because that (name calling), that’s pretty much what happens in the back room all the time, said Torrice, a Clinton Township Democrat. Whatever happened to freedom of speech? Torrice and Commissioner Phil DiMaria, an Eastpointe Democrat and retired police officer, asserted that it would be absurd to follow the policy to its logical conclusion a disorderly conduct arrest of a citizen based on expressed political opinions.Monday’s session marked the first time the Ethics and Rules Committee has met since April 27, 2009, when the panel met for nine minutes to address two ordinance revisions that were unrelated to ethics issues.The committee was formed four years ago to create an ethics policy for commissioners and employees. The panel was supposed to assume an enforcement role but failed to meet for three years after wrapping up its work on the new written rules.Gieleghem said that the proposed rule change was suggested by fellow commissioners who felt that they faced unfair, heated rhetoric from audience members.During public participation I’ve encouraged people to address the full board and not berate individual commissioners, said Gieleghem, a Clinton Township Democrat. I ¦ just wanted people to conduct themselves in a manner that’s consistent with public decorum.