Who knew that debating zoning changes and the maximum building height in Burlington could be a spectator sport?
Or, that Roberts Rules of Order can be enforced by the police?
About 50 people were inside Contois Auditorium tonight to hear The Burlington City Council debate a host of issues related to downtown development and on-campus housing and development at the University of Vermont and Champlain College.
Three Burlington City police officers were called to Contois Auditorium after a testy exchange between two Democratic city councilors — David Berezniak (Ward 2) and Ed Adrian (Ward 1) — and Republican City Council President Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) threatened to put a halt to yet another evening of debate on several major issues.
Councilors Berezniak and Adrian made repeated requests for "points of order" and "points of information" which angered Wright and clearly frustrated other councilors. Wright and others were convinced the Democrats were pulling procedural stunts to derail discussion on whether to publicly warn a hearing on changes to the city's zoning rules.
Those new rules would allow commercial buildings to top 127 feet and residential buildings to top 105 feet, an increase opposed by Democrats. At Monday night's regularly scheduled council meeting, the panel's five Democrats refused to agree to "suspend the rules" and allow the meeting to go past 10:30 p.m. Going into tonight's meeting, many councilors believed the Democrats would continue to do whatever it took to derail the plan as they didn't have the votes to outright reject the measure.
"You are not going to continue with this," said Wright to Berezniak and Adrian after roughly 10 minutes of back and forth between Adrian, Berezniak, Wright and City Attorney Ken Schatz. At times, Democrats cut off speakers with requests before being called upon by Wright (as is customary).
"No councilor is simply going to speak into the microphone without being called on," Wright chastized the Dems at one point. "You will not speak until recognized ... have some respect for the system."
Wright then asked Councilor Jane Knodell(P-Ward 2) to outline the zoning change, and anamendment she hoped would assuage Democratic concerns that thebuilding heights were too high.
Still, Democrats raised continuous objections and questions about the way in which the vote was being held, whether the night's agenda was proper, and if it was even valid motion. As tensions began to rise, Wright called for a five-minute recess.
At that time, Wright then called city police to Contois Auditorium. Within 15 minutes, two uniformed police officers were standing at the back of the room. Within a half hour a third officer was onhand.
Officers stayed in City Hall for about an hour while debate on the zoning amendment ensued.
After debate ended on the zoning amendment, Adrian asked of Wright, "Why are the cops here?"
Wright said, "We are going to continue this meeting, and if we continue to have disruptions the people making the disruptions will be removed."
Yikes. Now I know why Republicans are the party of law and order.
Actually, according to Robert's Rules of Order a governing body can eject someone from a meeting. Here's the section in its entirety:
73. Right of an Assembly to Eject any one fromits Place of Meeting. Every deliberative assembly has the right to decidewho may be present during its session; and when the assembly, either by a ruleor by a vote, decides that a certain person shall not remain in the room, it isthe duty of the chairman to enforce the rule of order, using whatever force isnecessary to eject the party.
However, it appears as if there is nothing in Robert's Rules that allows a presiding officer to potentially have an elected official removed without an investigation and trial by the entire voting body.
"Kurt called them in as a scare tactic to limitcouncilor debate. Only the council can remove a fellow councilor by a two-thirdsvote under Robert's Rules," Adrian noted.
After about an hour of debate, the city council did agree — by a 10 to 3 vote — to increase building height for commercial buildings to nine stories, or 115 feet, and for residential buildings to eight stories, or 99 feet. This is a lower height than originally proposed, which was 106 feet for residential and 127 feet for commercial. A public hearing on the zoning change will be held at the March 30 city council meeting.
At the end of the meeting, Adrian questioned Wright's move to call police to the auditorium.
"I for one find it discouraging Mr. president that you called the policehere," said Adrian. "There is a procedure under Robert's Rules [to expel members]." Having police in attendance was used to "basically intimidate councilors."
City Attorney Ken Schatz told councilors that making a point of order, per se, was not a disruption, but he did say it was within the presiding officer's authority to preserve order. He also said there is a process for council members to challenge the ruling of a presiding officer.
In other words, tempers may have gotten the best of everyone.
After the meeting, Wright told Seven Days that called the police to the meeting because he believed it possible the meeting would devolve into procedural maneuvers rather than open debate. "It was really my nuclear option, and I was hoping I would never have to use that option at all, and I'm glad we didn't have to," he said. "But, I wanted to make sure that we were going to have a debate tonight."
Something tells me tonight's debate is just the beginning of a whole new debate on the city council.
FRIDAY MORNING UPDATE:
The fur is still flying from last night's raucous Burlington City Council meeting. This morning Ward 1 Councilor Ed Adrian — one of two councilors allegedly targeted for possible removal by police — circulated a copy of the police report from one of the officers called to Contois last night. And what does it say? That the police were there to help Council President Kurt Wright haul away councilors if necessary.