South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

St. Louis County Council debates rules for public comment at meetings

Council chair wants to limit topics people can speak on
Photo by Erin Achenbach
Sixth District St. Louis County Councilman Ernie Trakas, the council’s presiding officer at the time, listens to public comment from mothers of St. Louis County policemen at a 2019 council meeting.

A resolution placing the public forum at St. Louis County Council meetings back at the start of the agenda failed last week.

The resolution, which failed 4-3 at the council’s Feb. 7 meeting, was proposed by 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, and would have reversed a measure taken by the council last month that placed the public forum section of the meeting at the end after business has already been conducted by the council. Public comment has usually been held at the beginning of meetings, prior to any votes or discussion on legislation.

The vote for Trakas’s resolution was split along party lines, with Democrats Rita Heard Days of the 1st District, Kelli Dunaway of the 2nd District, Lisa Clancy of the 5th District and Council Chairwoman Shalonda Webb against the measure, while Republicans Dennis Hancock of the 3rd District, Mark Harder of the 7th District and Trakas were in favor.

The resolution is part of a larger debate that has been ongoing over the past few weeks at the County Council about public comments at meetings. Webb had her own resolution on the Feb. 7 agenda that would limit speakers to topics either on the council’s agenda or related to matters it has discussed or may take up in the future.

“I would like to circle back and reinforce that this is a business meeting. We need to keep our … focus on things that we as the council for St. Louis County can act upon … that we as St. Louis County Council members can enact legislation to make a difference according to the needs of the community. I want us to stay focused on that. When we bring this forth to a vote, that is the purpose, about the business of St. Louis County,” Webb said during discussion on her resolution.

The public forum at council meetings gained some level of infamy during the pandemic for speakers who spoke on a range of culture war issues unrelated to the county business, like mask mandates and vaccines. Several livestreams of council meetings were removed from YouTube for some of the misinformation spoken during public comment, in part prompting the council to move its meeting broadcasts over to BoxCast.

“This forum has become a place where hate speech has festered. And what Madam Chair Webb is trying to do is to give us more tools to deal with that. This has been a dangerous place the last couple of years,” Clancy said Feb. 7.

Trakas disagreed with Clancy’s point of view, arguing that it was the public’s constitutionally-protected right to say whatever during public forum.

“The point is, misinformation is still protected speech. Lies are still protected speech — whether you agree with it or not is irrelevant. The only thing that the First Amendment doesn’t protect is speech that incites and to this point, we haven’t had that here,” Trakas said. “If someone wants to come up here and talk about Nazism and I walked out because I didn’t want to hear it, he nonetheless has the right to say it. The act of this council to impinge on that right, to encroach on it, is a mistake.” 

Webb’s resolution ultimately did not get a vote; she agreed to pull the matter until the council could meet and discuss council rules more in-depth at a Committee of the Whole meeting later this month.

“I am willing to work with my council colleagues to come up with some wording that will be able to enact our ability to govern responsibly,” Webb said. “I’m not doing a piecemeal, I want a holistic solution because no one in the chamber will be disrespected because (of) freedom of speech … It is a business meeting and we need to be on point with the business of the council.”

More to Discover