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."
Estes said he received comments from several people congratulating him on the way he handled Barrett. His goal is to conduct the city's business in an orderly and efficient manner.
"We were talking about a specific issue, a funding proposal," Estes said. "She never even approached that as a subject and if I make exceptions for her I have to make exceptions for everybody."
Commissioner Barbara Budros said Barrett was on topic after her first comment.
Barrett started her five-minute comment period by making a short remark in support of a previous agenda item.
She followed with four sentences criticizing the board for ignoring the carnage created during the breach of a dewatering structure at the Brown Bridge Dam and the city's liability. She said people who had property damaged by the resulting flood still haven't been adequately compensated.
Estes, who had heard these comments from Barrett before at meetings about the dam's removal, interrupted 22 seconds into her comments and told her she was not on topic. He said she could speak about the dam during open public comment.
Barrett tried to explain she was linking the city's potential liability at Brown Bridge should it be sued to its need to keep the trust fund whole and not divert the money for parks. Her voice rose as she attempted to speak over Estes' objections.
"You have a problem in the fact the trust fund may indeed have to carry liability," Barrett told Estes. "You're liability out there requires you to take into account that the trust fund is intact."
Estes asked Bifoss to talk to Barrett.
"If you don't sit down we will take a brief recess and I will call the police," Bifoss said.
Barrett again tried to explain her point, and Estes recessed the meeting. The entire exchange lasted 75 seconds.
Estes, Bifoss, and Commissioner Mike Gillman walked out while the remaining commissioners stayed in their seats.
Barrett left the meeting.
"It was awkward," said Commissioner Mary Ann Moore. "It was an unpleasant encounter and I was sorry for her frustration."