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Council Grapples With Whitaker Fallout

Montpelier police remove Stephen Whitaker, right, from City Council at the request of Mayor Anne Watson. Video screenshot.
By Cassandra Hemenway

The Montpelier City Council continues to deal with the repercussions of the arrest and forcible removal of local government critic Steve Whitaker from a council meeting on June 8.

Whitaker’s arrest came after several verbal warnings from Mayor Anne Watson when Whitaker spoke beyond the time limit during the public-comment segment at the start of the meeting. After Whitaker’s arrest by Police Chief Brian Peete, Peete pushed Whitaker, whose arms were pinned behind his back, from council chambers as Whitaker protested, calling Peete “a brute.”

The action follows two written warnings to Whitaker about disruptive behavior dating back to October 2021, and a new set of meeting conduct rules that councilors enacted in May. It also addresses what critics of Whitaker have said is a years-long pattern of him ignoring meeting protocol and warnings, verbally attacking city officials, and accusing the city of corruption. Others contend that Whitaker has raised valid points about city management and doggedly held the city accountable to public records and open meetings laws.

Complaint Sparks Special Meeting

In the wake of Whitaker’s arrest, councilors met June 13 in a nine-minute online special meeting to discuss an emailed complaint from Whitaker that the two-minute rule violates the Vermont open meeting law, plus an allegation by him that councilors held an illegal meeting outside city hall during a break in the June 8 meeting.

In two separate motions, councilors unanimously approved resolutions stating that they had not violated the open meeting law and they had not held an illegal meeting.

“I think that we didn’t do anything wrong,” said councilor Jack McCullough, who moved that the resolutions be approved.

The details of the alleged illegal meeting complaint, including who made it, were not in the agenda, the minutes, or in the meeting’s packet of supporting documents. However, council member Dona Bate spoke to what happened in a telephone interview on Sunday, June 19. 

Bate said that immediately after the physical confrontation between Whitaker and the police at the June 8 meeting council member Jennifer Morton left the room, upset. The council took a short break during which three other councilors found Morton outside.

“Jennifer was quite upset about it all,” Bate said. “She … went outside. Other councilors went out to talk to her to see if she was OK. So when Steve went out he saw four city council members outside of city hall. We went out there in support of Jennifer — it was not a city meeting. She was upset, as we all were, with that physical confrontation.”

In a telephone interview, councilor Cary Brown said the complaint process required the council to respond, which is what they did with the two resolutions and why they held a special meeting.
“That is what we do when there’s an alleged violation,” she said, adding that the city had also consulted with its legal counsel to confirm that the mayor and council had not violated the open meeting law.

According to Assistant City Manager Cameron Niedermayer, the law requires 24 hours notice for special meetings. The June 13 meeting was warned on Friday, June 10, she said, posted inside city hall and externally at the front of city hall, at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center, and posted on the city website. 

Whitaker said he did not know about the meeting. “I was not informed of any special meeting despite apparently being the complainant. So much for due process. That is just how this city operates, for now,” he wrote in an email to The Bridge.

Old Speaking Limit, New Conduct Rules

The two-minute limit has been in effect for more than 27 years, according to City Manager Bill Fraser. 

“What has changed,” he wrote in a June 15 Front Porch Forum post, “is the adoption of more formal rules of conduct which outline behaviors, process, and consequences. This was, indeed, adopted due to continual disregard for rules of order in a public meeting. The individual involved was present when these rules were adopted and commented on them. He was fully aware of their content.”

Fraser was referring to “Rules of Conduct at Public Meetings,” adopted by the city council in May. 

The four-page document outlines a series of rules related to addressing city council, with a special section for the “General Business and Appearances” public comment section of each meeting. In a section titled “Decorum to be Maintained,” the document states that speakers do so at the discretion of the mayor and may be ordered out of the room if the speaker “refuses to comply with the rules and regulations outlined in this section.”

The document then goes on to describe the enforcement in place for violating rules of conduct:

“It shall be out of order for any individual to disturb or interrupt any meeting of the city council. … If, after warning, the individual fails to cease the offending conduct and continues to interrupt or disturb the meeting, the individual shall be asked by the mayor to leave the meeting. If the individual refuses to leave, the mayor may request that an officer of the Montpelier Police Department remove the individual. Once removed, the individual shall be barred from further participation for the remainder of the meeting.”

Warnings, or a Setup?

Fraser emailed Whitaker a written warning on October 12, 2021 that concluded “Some of your recent behavior … could potentially be considered as appropriate for a disorderly conduct citation or cause for a no trespass order at City Hall or from City meetings.”

The email acknowledges Whitaker as an active participant in local government who “is often thought provoking and insightful.” But it also addresses “increasingly disruptive and verbally aggressive” behavior, specifically at a Homelessness Taskforce Meeting when Whitaker allegedly slammed a city laptop shut. It refers to Whitaker having been asked on multiple occasions to refrain from touching city equipment, and to keep a distance from city officials during meetings.

Asked to comment about the written warnings, Whitaker said “[Fraser] has been building for a setup for a while.” Whitaker said he believes the warnings came not because of his behavior, but because of Whitaker’s criticisms about Fraser’s contract renewal and other city management matters.

“I once closed a laptop in frustration when shut out of a homelessness task force comment period by the (assistant) city manager,” Whitaker said, referring to Fraser’s email. Whitaker also provided an explanation for allegations that he has verbally abused and attacked city officials: “My comments to explain the bitching or mad cow disease of the asst [sic] city manager were not made in a public meeting.”

In a second written warning, dated April 15, 2022, Fraser wrote:“As a result of your conduct at the homelessness task force meeting last week:

·     You are not to communicate with Assistant City Manager Niedermayer directly about anything. You can go through me if you have questions or need information.

·     You are to stay out of Assistant City Manager Niedermayer’s office. You can come to the City Manager’s office if you need anything.

·     You are being told, again, to refrain from touching or moving any city computer, audio, or video equipment unless you have been given prior permission by a city employee.

·     You are to stay away from Assistant City Manager Niedermayer at any public meeting. The rooms are large enough that you do not need to sit in her proximity.”

When asked for comment about his arrest, and the written and verbal warnings that preceded it, Whitaker wrote, “The open meeting law entitles public comment and I raise many, many issues of neglect, deceit, corruption, public safety, each of which would rationally be allowed at least two minutes, or even prompt council discussion as agenda items. But not with this autocratic control by Mayor Watson and Bill Fraser puppet master.”

The Citation

A June 9 citation from Vermont Superior Court outlines Whitaker’s conditions of release and the reasons for his arrest, which include “Disorderly conduct, disturbing lawful assembly, resisting arrest #1, unlawful trespass – land, and violation conditions of release.” The document lists conditions under which Whitaker may be released from jail. Those include: “You must NOT abuse or harass Anne Watson in any way regardless of whether you are in jail or released,” “You shall not enter or remain on the lands or premises of Montpelier City Hall,” and “You may not attend Montpelier City Council or Board meetings in person so long as the meetings have a remote option.”

Open Meeting Law Supports Time Limits

Vermont’s open meeting law appears to support the imposition of a speaking time limit, particularly in the “General Business and Appearances” section of the council’s agenda, a time set aside at each meeting for public comment not related to any particular item on the agenda. (Members of the public have additional time to speak about specific agenda items as well.)

According to the Vermont Secretary of State’s “Guide to Open Meetings” regarding public comment items on board agendas: “The public comment period … is not a free-for-all; the board chair may establish reasonable rules to maintain order, and reasonable limitations on the amount of time for each speaker are not unusual or improper.”

Time Limits in Other Vermont Cities

A two-minute time limit is not unheard of at public meetings, particularly in “Public Comment” agenda items. 

The Burlington City Council upholds a two-minute speaking limit during the public comment section of its regular meetings, Council President Karen Paul said in an interview last week. Paul said most people respect the time limit. 

“Do we occasionally get people that are not as respectful of the time limit, or go outside the bounds of what we feel is reasonable? It happens, but not often,” Paul said.

Barre City does not have specified time limits during its public-comment section at city council meetings, but, Barre Mayor Jake Hemmerick said in an email to The Bridge, “I’d consider this as needed, and the open meeting law allows the chair to set reasonable limits. I usually jump in at three minutes — and if it’s not germane to the item at hand.”

“A primary purpose of a public meeting is to make decisions (and) get work done,” Hemmerick continued, “and a recent trend to disrupt business and behave uncivilly is something that may prompt more enforceable rules of procedure in many settings.”

To see minutes and agendas of Montpelier’s public meetings, go to montpelier-vt.org/129/Agendas-Minutes. ORCA Media records public meetings and posts them online, including the June 8 and 13 sessions, at orcamedia.net/series/montpelier-city-council.

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