Traverse City Record-Eagle

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April 14, 2013

Speaker threatened with arrest at city meeting

TRAVERSE CITY — The mayor and city manager's threat to have a speaker arrested for allegedly going off topic during public comment has raised concerns the action may chill open debate in the city.

Mayor Michael Estes and City Manager Ben Bifoss ordered Elisa Barrett of Suttons Bay to sit down during public comment at a city meeting last Monday because they believed her comments weren't related to a discussion about using the Brown Bridge Trust Fund for city park improvements. Estes ordered the meeting recessed so Bifoss could call police and have Barrett removed as she tried to explain the relevancy of her comments.

Commissioner Jim Carruthers said people get nervous during public comment and the mayor needs to show them more patience.

"When people see that exchange from (Monday) night it will make them think twice about getting up to speak," Carruthers said.

Carruthers said Estes likes to run a tight meeting but he "jumped the gun" Monday and his actions were "out of line." He said several residents contacted him about the exchange Tuesday morning.

"I was really quite shocked," said resident and former mayor Geraldine Greene. "You thank people for being interested in what's going on in the community. You don't threaten to call the police on them."

The city commission invites public comment on every agenda item but limits the comments to that specific topic. It then allows speakers to address any topic during a public comment period at the end of the meeting, except for topics already discussed previously.

Estes enforces the rules very strongly, Commissioner Jody Bergman said.

"Sometimes he's a little quick to cut people off," she said. "Telling someone to sit down or I'm going to call the police is a little harsh."

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