Jan. 14 2009 12:00 AM

New Lansing City Council President Derrick Quinney tries to maintain order — but gets called “Hitler” instead.

Not that he was looking for a new nickname, but Lansing City Council President Derrick Quinney had his pick of the litter Monday night when the so-called “regulars” used their three minutes of fame to lambaste him for, as they see it, restricting their First Amendment rights to free speech.

If former president Brian Jeffries, an At-Large Councilman, grinned and bore his way through public comment during his one-year term, Quinney indicated right off the bat he will wield the gavel without tolerance for any of the antics of the so-called “regulars” who each week often berate the Council and mayor. The problem as he sees it isn’t how the “regulars” feel about him or Mayor Virg Bernero or any other city official — but with the violation of Rule 19 of the Lansing City Council Rules, which governs acceptable conduct for the public at Council meetings

“I support their desire, their passion to come down here and speak. I support that wholeheartedly. I in no way want to deny them that right,” he said.

At the same time, however, Quinney says the regulars’ bombastic speeches discourage
others from coming to Council to address the body. His position is that
it’s difficult enough to speak at a podium, into a microphone, on
television and addressing the Council and Bernero and whoever else
happens to be in attendance. Add in the passionate, alliterative
comments from John Pollard, Darnell Oldham and others, and that’s
enough to keep folks away, he says.

“My intent is to make this forum
accessible and open to anybody without fear of any intimidation
whatsoever,” he said.

It all started at the Jan. 5 meeting, Quinney’s
first as president. Prior to public comment, hedirected City Clerk
Chris Swope to read portions of Rule 19 aloud.

To say the move
wasn’t received positively is like saying At-large Councilwoman Carol
Wood and Bernero just don’t see eye-toeye: Local activist John Pollard
and others accused Quinney of restricting their First amendment rights
to free speech. One resident, Bible in hand, said the rules (and rule
19) didn’t apply to him because he was only governed by the laws of
God. He deigned to walk through the saloon-style doors and approach the
Council dais, which earned him a police escort out of City Hall.

that first meeting of wielding the gavel, Quinney likened the public
comment attacks on him to a classroom of fifth-grade students testing
their teacher on the first day of school. The way he sees it, if the
teacher doesn’t set the rules and follow them to the letter that first
day, the rest of the year will degenerate into a sideshow.

which the “regulars” have latched onto as one of their First Amendment
rights, is just the gateway, Quinney says, to other sorts of disruptive
behavior: Booing, hissing and the like. If he, as Council president,
relents and tolerates the applause in violation of Rule 19, he’d be
giving ground and opening a can of legal worms.

Since the
purpose of Council meetings are to discuss city business, and not to
provide a public forum for residents to discuss city matters, the onus
is on residents to adhere to the rules.

Moreover, according to
an opinion prepared in Aug. 2008 by City Attorney Brig Smith, applause
while not at the podium does not fall under the category of “protected
free speech,” meaning any offenders could be warned and then removed
from the meeting for clapping at any time during the meeting, unless
the clapper were at the podium or applauding during a special ceremony.

Explaining the opinion at Monday’s Council session, Smith said,
“We aren’t saying you can’t clap for certain reasons, or boo for
certain reasons. What we’re saying is you can’t clap or boo — at all.”

And it’s not just
clapping and booing. Also unacceptable is any “conduct which disrupts
the meeting,” which can include whistling, heckling, profanity,
stomping or abusive or threatening language.

Which brings us
back to Monday night’s meeting, Quinney’s second as president. Nearly
all speakers used their three minutes during public comment to accuse
him of restricting their First Amendment rights, an argument he had
tried to cut off by having the city attorney present his opinion on the

Again, it ended with another resident ejected. Darnell Oldham told the Council he would “speak up and speak out against the tyranny
imposed here each and every week,” then accused Quinney of being a
“good boy running to save master.” What prompted Quinney to rule him
out of order, however, was Oldham’s protest-via-clapping at the end of
public comment. As he was being escorted from chambers, Oldham called
Quinney an “Uncle Tom” and “Hitler.”

“Darnell obviously wants
that — he wants that attention,” Quinney said afterward, exasperated
but slightly amused.

“You know, this is the city of Lansing,” he said.
“The conduct that’s going on out here, we are lowering (the meetings)
to the level of the ‘Jerry Springer Show.’”

— Angela Vasquez-Giroux