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Statement From Council President Lisa Nanton on Meeting Decorum

The following was read at the 3/23/16 Council Meeting  by Councilman Fernando Irizarry

(Council President Nanton was absent due to illness)

Announcement_MegaphoneIn response  about decorum at council meetings and what statements and behavior should and should not be allowed, I believe inappropriate behavior at city council meetings that is disruptive must end; but I also believe that the right of the residents of Perth Amboy to express themselves in any public meeting must be protected.

Some people have complained that I have allowed critical comments to be made about certain members of the administration. I would like to remind these people that I have sat here for four  years and have had to listen to many critical comments made about me and other members of the council as well—and I have NEVER  tried to stifle  those comments.

Regardless of how irritating certain comments may be to us personally—no matter how much we may disagree with certain statements—the people have a right to criticize those of us who hold public positions, whether we are elected or appointed. And in my opinion, it is very important that we err on the side of allowing people as much leeway as possible to state those opinions—not only because the law is not on our side when we try to control speech. But also because in this room in this historic building, where New Jersey was the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights in November of 1789, there is supreme irony in trying to limit free speech.

It is very easy to allow public comments when people praise you. It’s a lot harder when people say things you don’t agree with, or that you know to be untrue, or are just downright mean-spirited and hurtful. But it is at precisely those times that those of us who serve in government must be the most mindful of the purpose of the first amendment.

It is a serious matter when a government tries to restrict a person’s right to express an opinion at a public meeting—and it can have serious legal repercussions, as it did a few years ago in a town not far from here. In that case, the president of the board of education cut off a resident who was making a statement critical of the board and a board employee. The enraged resident filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city, claiming that he was silenced because of his unpopular views, and stating that his first amendment rights were denied. A jury agreed and the city was ordered to pay the resident $100,000 in damages. The decision was appealed and made it to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court decision that the resident’s right to speak was unfairly denied by the city—through the actions of the president of the board.

Let me be clear. I do not condone slander, but not every negative comment about an official at this table is slanderous. I will do my best to stop anyone who is making inappropriate remarks. But as I have said before, it is impossible for me to identify every remark that might be slanderous—much less stop it from being uttered. But of course, anyone who feels that they have been slandered has the right to take legal action against any person who they believe has slandered them.

Finally, let me state that while I will do everything possible to allow the public to exercise its first amendment rights, I will not allow boisterous and raucous behavior in the council chambers, as if this is a junior high pep rally. This is a meeting of the governing body of the City of Perth Amboy, and these proceeding will be respected.

The unprofessional behavior of the two members of the mayor’s staff is particularly disappointing.  Their remarks warrant a seminar in civil discourse. The Council has heard concerns from the public about the perception of Perth Amboy. The responsibility for that perception starts at the top, and when the Mayor’s own staff reduces their remarks to the lowest common denominator of personal attacks–even shouting or calling out derisive comments that are clearly audible to the public during council meetings—that lack of class and professionalism blemishes her office.

So I am putting everyone on notice. Any demonstrations involving prolonged and extremely loud applause, foot stomping, cheering, jeering, or yelling out of comments by people who have not been recognized by the presiding officer are disruptive. I will extend the courtesy of warning such people once. However, if such behavior by any person occurs a second time, the person will be escorted out of the council chambers and will not be allowed to return during that meeting. This applies to everyone. There will be no exceptions. Free speech does not mean a free-for-all.

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MON. Jan 22
• City Council, Caucus,
4:30 p.m.
City Hall, High St.

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City Hall, High St.

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7 p.m.
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6 p.m.
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• City Council, Business,
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