MFPD board adopts ordinances regarding conduct at meetings
September 28, 2005 - By LAURA UHLMANSIEK
Anyone disturbing the peace at a Mehl-ville Fire Protection District Board of Di-rectors meeting now may face a fine or even jail time.
Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hil-mer introduced three ordinances at a special meeting Friday morning that establish rules of order and the offense of peace disturbance during public proceedings.
The ordinances give the board the authority to have disruptive people removed from meetings and penalize district employees who do not follow the ordinances. They also outline the penalty for committing a peace disturbance on district property, including a fine of $500 and imprisonment for up to 90 days.
"I thank the both of you for (being) able to make the special meeting on short no-tice this morning, but I felt it was necessary as our meetings can be described as chaotic at best," Hilmer said. "And so instead of getting better they're getting more depraved by the week. So I drew up these ordinances along with (district legal counsel) Matt Hoffman. These have been drawn up from different cities and municipalities in the area ... These ordinances will cover the behavior of the board members, of audience members and of employees on and off duty.''
Hoffman noted that the ordinances were drafted under state statutes regulating fire protection districts, which give "the board the authority to create the rules by which the meetings run.''
The board voted 2-1 to approve the ordinances, with Hil-mer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman in favor and Secretary Dan Ottoline Sr. opposed.
Ottoline asked Hoffman if the ordinances were legal and Hoffman replied they were.
"Personally, I think it's kind of shallow that we are setting up a police station, a fear factor,'' Ottoline said. "We never had these problems before ... Are we so afraid of the citizens that we're going to file charges against them — taxpayers? It just seems silly to me."
Stegman said after reviewing the ordinances, she be-lieved they were necessary.
"... I think that unfortunately we do need something to keep the order so that we can conduct the business of the board," Stegman told the board. "I think that we are making ample opportunities for, even in these ordinances, for participation by the public, and we hope that that continues. All we're asking is that it be civil and that you do not disrupt the meeting or have anyone else be fearful to attend the board meetings."
Ottoline said, "The only thing I got to say to that — yes, we want the people to speak. That's their right. They're taxpayers. But if you kick a dog long enough, he's going to bite you.''
Ottoline later said, "... We are trying to save all kinds of money around here. We are renting the cops to be at the meetings?''
Hilmer said he was uncertain what type of arrangement the district will have with the county Police Department.
Chief Jim Silvernail said he would have to talk with county police about how that would be handled.
"I can't speak for the police,'' the chief said.
Ottoline asked, "Well then how can we pass these if we don't know what the police are going to do?''
Hilmer said, "... They will enforce them. If it's the law, they will enforce them. Correct, Matt?''
Hoffman said, "Right ... Basically if they find that there's a — and this would be the case even if you didn't pass this peace disturbance ordinance specifically (because) St. Louis County has a peace disturbance ordinance. So that would be up to the authorities as to whether they'd brought a charge like that.''
Ottoline said, "I think it's shallow, sir. Very shallow. Like we're paranoid up here. I think they ought to be read for people to — so they know what the hell we're trying to pass here.''
Hilmer replied, "There's copies available if they'd like them afterwards.''
Ottoline said, "Afterwards?''
Hilmer said, "That's right. I think the big misconception that's going on — this is a three-member duly elected board, whether their views are agreed with or not, that's how they are. This is a board meeting, not a public meeting. It's a chance for the public to watch the board deliberate and transact business.''
Ottoline interjected, "They are the taxpayers.''
Hilmer replied, "Always have been, Dan.''
Ottoline said, "Remember it.''
Since Hilmer and Stegman took office in April after running on a reform platform, they have made many changes to district policies. As the majority on the three-member board, they have revised the substance abuse policy, cut sick leave, personal days and vacation time, and worked to change disability benefits — a move that is on hold after Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters filed a lawsuit and obtained a preliminary injunction.
Since April, board meetings, once sparsely attended, have attracted residents, district employees and employees' family members, many of whom have loudly criticized the board's actions. The crowded meetings often are interrupted by audience members who yell at the board and clap in support of speakers addressing the board.
Protecting Our Protectors, a group of residents and family members of firefighters, has been demonstrating outside the Administration Building before each meeting. After board meetings, members of Protecting Our Protectors and district employees have been gathering outside the building, decrying the actions of Stegman and Hilmer.
"If he's so worried about conducting business, why doesn't he sit down in a room somewhere and negotiate a memorandum of understanding where the employees know what's happening, the families know what's happening and this district knows what's happening, not to mention the taxpayers, who are paying for the whole damn shooting match," Dennis Skelton, the founder of Protecting Our Pro-tectors, told the Call.
Hilmer told the Call that the three ordinances primarily are based on ordinances adopted by local municipalities.
The first ordinance outlines the rules of procedure and states the board will conduct meetings according to the 1990 edition of Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, but may adopt additional rules and regulations consistent to Robert's Rules. The first ordinance includes a clause that if a board member or any person attending the meeting "becomes an annoyance, or becomes belligerent, in-timidating or threatening, or otherwise seeks to or does disrupt the orderly process of the meeting," the chairman may ask them to leave the meeting.
If the person refuses to do so, the chairman may ask an attending county police officer to escort the person from the meeting. If no police officer is in attendance, the chairman may suspend the meeting until a police officer arrives or he may adjourn the meeting.
The second ordinance establishes the rules of public proceedings, and includes such guidelines for addressing the board as limiting public comments to three minutes unless granted more time, addressing the board as a whole instead of to individual board members and prohibiting questions directed at board members, except through the chairman.
The ordinance also requires board members to "preserve order and decorum" by not interrupting the proceedings of the peace of the board or by refusing to obey the orders of the board or chairman. If they do not follow these guidelines, they may be prosecuted for committing the crime of a peace disturbance.
Any person attending the meeting who makes "personal, impertinent, or slanderous remarks, or who shall become boisterous" will be barred from making future re-marks before the board.
Employees of the district are required to use decorum when attending meetings and are prohibited from gathering on district property before or after board meetings.
Off-duty employees must leave the property immediately and on-duty personnel must return to quarters, according to the ordinance. If the meeting room has exceeded its capacity, on-duty employees must return to their quarters.
"Offenders will be subject to demotion, suspension and loss of wages, termination and/or arrest and prosecution," the ordinance states.
During the meeting, Ottoline questioned the restriction on gathering after meetings.
"This is a public parking lot, isn't it," Ot-toline said.
"It's a district parking lot. We're not going to have rallies. We're not going to have people hanging out in our parking lot. No. 1, it intimidates a lot of citizens who want to show up when they have to walk the gauntlet," Hilmer said.
"I think you're being very shallow, sir,'' Ottoline responded.
The third ordinance establishes the definition of peace disturbance and the punishment a person may face is convicted of disturbing the peace, which may include a fine of up to $500 or imprisonment of up to 90 days.
The ordinance says a person shall commit the crime of a peace disturbance if they knowingly disturb or alarm another person by abusive language, screaming, cursing, physical intimidation, fighting, violent verbal threats or failing to abide by the ruling of the chairman.
A peace disturbance may also be considered obstructing vehicular or pedestrian traffic, including in and out of district property, according to the ordinance.
Hilmer told the Call that he believed it was unfortunate the ordinances had to be adopted, but he said it was necessary.
"The board was unable to transact and deliberate district business due to the continued lack of decorum," Hilmer said.