At the Nov. 13 meeting of the Wildwood City Council, Mayor Jim Bowlin officially announced his veto of Bill 2403, otherwise known as the “Free Speech Amendment.” The bill was previously approved by the council on a 12-4 vote at its Oct. 22 meeting.
Following council discussion on Nov. 13, the council voted 10-6 in favor of overturning the veto; however, a majority of 11 votes was needed and the veto was upheld.
The ordinance, sponsored by Councilmember Steve Taylor [Ward 4], has the goal of allowing individuals at city council meetings to ask councilmembers direct questions at the podium during a meeting’s public comments portion and allow councilmembers time to issue direct replies to those questions, should they choose to do so.
Before its passage on Oct. 22, some councilmembers expressed concern about the following sentence: “The Council may, by majority vote, suspend or change the procedures and rules for public participation for a particular meeting and or future meetings.” That concern carried over into Bowlin’s official veto statement.
According to a statement by Bowlin at the Nov. 13 meeting, his main concern regarding the bill’s language stems from a provision that would allow for an alteration of public participation procedures on a meeting-by-meeting basis.
“I support the stated objective of Bill 2403 as it has been represented to the public to allow questions of city officials during public participation, with answers from those officials,” Bowlin said in an official statement at the Nov. 13 meeting. “I have, in fact, already implemented it. However, the bill contains a provision totally unrelated to that objective that allows the altering of public participation procedures on a meeting-by-meeting basis. This provision can be selectively and arbitrarily used to turn what has been labeled “free speech” into “no speech” and to treat public participants differently.”
According to Bowlin, City Attorney John Young also has advised against the provision on the grounds that “… it invites one-off changes, thereby exposing the city to claims for constitutional and civil rights violations.”
“We must not promote rules that invite arbitrary application to treat public participants differently,” Bowlin said at the Nov. 13 meeting before ultimately posing the recommendation to send the bill back to the city’s Administration/Public Works Committee to revisit the bill’s language and prepare another version.
Taylor objected to the veto, stating that rejecting the entire ordinance because of concerns over one sentence was like “… throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
“This language can be fixed, and it doesn’t require a veto to do that,” Taylor said.
Other councilmembers also objected to the mayor’s veto on the grounds that the language had already been debated multiple times by the city council and multiple committees. Councilmember John Gragnani [Ward 1] called discussion over the sentence a “nitpicking point.”
“… If there was a concern over changing a rule, or changing the participation in some manner that was going to create a potential problem, I would expect that the city attorney would advise at that time and say, ‘I wouldn’t do that particular change because I believe that to be inconsistent with the law or inconsistent with anything that would protect us from litigation,'” Gragnani said on Nov. 13. “That’s OK. All the bill says is that the council can change the rules. It didn’t say how, it didn’t say exactly when, and it didn’t say we could break the law … It didn’t say that, and it never will.”
Taylor added that the sentence in question states that the council can change the meeting rules with a majority vote of the council, as opposed to a decision by the meeting’s chair.
“I think there might be some technical language that could be easily repaired in committee, and I’m fully supportive of looking at that technicality in committee and will be supportive of that,” Taylor said. “I think we have some good guardrails in place, and it takes a majority vote of the council to change the rules, in essence .. .to keep any future mayor from making arbitrary decisions.”
Ultimately, the council voted to send the bill back to the city Admin/Public Works Committee for revision. Committee chair Joe Garritano [Ward 8] agreed that it would be placed on the next meeting agenda. It was also stated that the city attorney would supplement the committee with a close record document that would delineate specific concerns about the sentence.
“I hope the committee returns with something soon, and let’s hope it’s recognizable,” Taylor said. “I hope the committee recognizes that the best thing is addressing the sentence, deleting or altering it to address the concerns, and then we get something back that looks like what we sent them.
“I’m hopeful. I think, throughout the entire process, the debate has been really good for the city.”