In a discussion that took part of two different meetings, the Plano City Council decided to address its troll problem, but ended up almost right back where it started.
On December 6 and December 12, the body discussed how it should handle speakers who show up, as one council member said, “to advance their social media careers.” The eight members debated the merits of moving the public comment portion of the meeting offline or scheduling it for a different time.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The Dallas City Council pondered its own approach to trolling at the mic in October and also discussed whether the public comments should come in an entirely separate meeting. Some even floated the idea of not broadcasting comments from the public.
Both city councils had the same reservations—it’s difficult to eliminate trolls without also making it more difficult for people with legitimate concerns to address the council.
“For months now, really since the circus came to town, I’ve been thinking about how we can confine commeints to matters that are pertinent to the city without hampering, restricting, or making it difficult for citizens to raise legitimate complaints,” said Plano City Councilman Shelby Williams. “I can’t come up with anything.”
Several council members pointed to one person—Alex Stein—as the chief target of their ire. Williams said the first time Stein visited, he found the bit “amusing,” but that it “very quickly became abusive.” Stein has appeared across the country at municipal meetings, taking over the microphone to perform over-the-top rants that are often racist and homophobic. He is currently suing Dallas County after being removed from a Commissioners Court meeting in May and has used his performances to further his own career as a right-wing prankster, landing interview spots on Tucker Carlson Tonight and other shows.
“Basically, we were their taxpayer-funded video production studio,” Williams said. “Not once have any of them ever said anything pertinent to city business.” Several also pointed to the fact that some hourly employees of the city were also required to attend meetings, which means the city is paying them during public comment, too—no matter how long it goes on and who is speaking.
That being said, most around the dais were reluctant to stop the cameras from broadcasting public comment, or moving the comment portion to times that would be inconvenient to residents.
The Texas Open Meetings Act only requires a city to offer public comment on agenda items and during public hearings, so either Council could opt to nix the open mic altogether. (Council members for both cities didn’t seem ready to go that far.) Both decided to enforce existing rules regarding speakers.
“I am not OK with the status quo,” said Prince. “I am not a fan of letting this be a free-for-all.”
Plano City Manager Mark Israelson said that the Council also had a responsibility to the staff that attend the meetings when it comes to enforcing its rules. “The work environment that they’re in is partly your responsibility,” he said. “What you condone and do not speak up on becomes a matter of record.”
Several council members questioned whether they could limit public comment to just city business. Mayor John Muns said stepping up that enforcement might be rough for a while. “If we do limit it to city business, I will do my best to control it.”
However, in October, Dallas Senior Assistant City Attorney Cal Estee and Deputy Chief Bert Vandenberg explained that as long as the city had the open microphone period on the agenda, it would have to contend with people who abuse it.
They can, however, impose rules of decorum, and remove people who don’t follow them.
Ann Stehling, a Texas open meeting attorney, said that while government meetings are required to offer public comment on agenda items, even then, there are still restrictions. For instance, while a council can’t prohibit a speaker from criticizing it, the law also says that it can act if said speech violates other laws.
“For example, defamatory statements would fall within the carve-out for ‘public criticism that is otherwise prohibited by law,’ and a city council could take reasonable measures to prohibit the making of defamatory statements during public comment,” she said.
The Plano Council discussed instituting a rule that would see repeat offenders banned from public comment. Some city and county governments, including Dallas County, have a provision that suspends speakers from six months to a year if they have to be removed from a meeting.
Williams said he hoped that Stein and others would be able to see reason. “Hopefully, Alex Stein and the undercard performers would respect that all of this is taxpayer funded,” he said.
Grady held out no such hope. “They don’t respect us, they don’t respect the decorum, and they never will,” he said. “They think they’re funny. If you think they’re going to wear out and at some time disappear, we’ve been doing this now for a year … they haven’t moved on, and they never will get over it. Don’t expect them to respect us.”
Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She’s written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.