Resident to York City Council: 'Fascist' public comment buzzer silences black community
A York City resident recently complained to city council that the time limit on public comments was enforced only occasionally until the black community started to speak out.
Five minutes into her public critique, she was cut off with a buzz.
Christine Lincoln — an African-American, a former city poet laureate and a one-time city council hopeful — had said during the Tuesday, Oct. 16, council meeting that the time limit on public comments has "fascist undertones."
"Now we have a city council attempting to silence us because we have become 'unruly and disruptive,'" she said. "I think it's a slippery slope. I think it's dangerous. I think it's retaliation. It's intimidation. It's to try and get people to not speak up anymore."
The rules: According to the council's rules and procedures, which can be found online, each speaker is limited to five minutes, depending on the number of people who have signed up to speak. The presiding officer may reduce that time if the number of speakers would extend beyond the scheduled 30-minute public comment session.
The rule was officially adopted in 2004, city clerk Dianna Thompson-Mitchell said.
Before that, it had been a long-term "unwritten rule," said Mayor Michael Helfrich.
Lincoln said she's been coming to council meetings longer than many of the members have been on the council and says the five-minute rule was never enforced until the black community started to speak out.
"I've come here, and I've heard people talk about just the most ridiculous things, just shenanigans, foolishness ... and nobody has ever used any type of buzzer system at all," she said. "But now, all of a sudden, when black people are coming forward and challenging things going on in the community, when we're asking for equality, fighting for lives — children are dying — now all of a sudden because we wouldn't be silent when you wanted to silence us, there's buzzer system."
History of public dissent: Mitchell said time limits during public comment have been an ongoing issue during the 21 years she's worked for the city.
"Any time that council puts a time limit, people start coming out in masses all upset because they think they’re being silenced," she said.
Since its formal adoption in 2004, the rule was either strictly or loosely enforced based on the individual council president's choice, she said.
Council President Henry Nixon said the rule helps "provide an opportunity for everyone to have a voice," rather than one speaker taking up all of the allotted time.
Mitchell also said that comment during regular meetings is only legally required for legislative items.
"The fact that they allow public comment on items not on the agenda is something they do not have to do, but they do allow that," she said.
Mitchell said "there are many ways people can get a point across" other than standing at the podium.
Residents can reach out to council members by email, by phone or in person, she said.
Lincoln also alleged that council Vice President Sandie Walker, Nixon and Helfrich met to discuss eliminating public comment.
Walker and Helfrich said there was never a discussion about eliminating public comment.
Walker said she encourages public comment, and if there is a misunderstanding she suggests residents reach out to her directly to discuss it.
Helfrich said that "as a person who has been speaking in public comment since 2002," he has no interest in eliminating it.
In June, Lincoln was among a handful of city residents who spoke out about a proposed city deal, since abandoned, they believed would aid in gentrification of the city by filling staff with Caucasian employees with little connection the the city's minority population.