Photo By David Robert Washoe County Commissioners are embroiled in a dispute about what citizens can say to them during public-comment periods of meetings.

A review of a videotape of a disturbance at a Washoe County Commission meeting last week reveals that the disruption didn’t begin until after commission chair Bonnie Weber twice interrupted an elderly citizen during the public comment period and then recessed the meeting to prevent his being able to complete his statement.

At the time of the interruptions and the recess, the citizen, Al Hesson, was criticizing Weber herself for not respecting free speech at commission meetings.

Weber acted under a recent policy that effectively allows her to control the content of citizens’ comments, a practice that has drawn fire from local residents. They say the policy has created an atmosphere of official belligerence in the commission hall that caused the commission to lose control of its meetings. They also say the problem started when the current commission took office.

Spanish Springs resident Vallea Rose said, “When [former commissioner] Jim Shaw was chair, he would remind the public speakers that they were getting out of line, they would apologize and move on. Since Bonnie Weber has taken chair and Larkin vice chair, the public-speaking spot has just gotten more contentious, approval of the consent items are a contentious issue, approval of the agenda is a contentious issue.”

Rose said the commission now must rely on a phalanx of sheriff’s deputies to keep order instead of the presiding skills of the commission chair. She believes from 12 to 15 were in the room at the time of the Weber dispute.

Weber considers criticism of the commissioners by name to be “personal attacks” and says such criticism isn’t permitted. Following is the transcript of the relevant portion of the tape:

Al Hesson: “Today I throw down the gauntlet relative to free speech. … Why do I get the feeling that Weber does not feel the First Amendment should apply to her and this body? The only member who stood up to Ms. Weber on this issue is Pete Sferrazza, who is a lawyer. Fellow lawyer Humke sits here deaf, dumb and mute on free speech. Apparently he slept through all of his classes on constitutional law, or perhaps he purchased his law degree by mail order. Weber, Larkin and Galloway …”

Bonnie Weber: “Mr. Hesson. Mr. Hesson, one warning: personal attacks. Thank you, go ahead.”

Hesson: “Weber, Larkin and Galloway sit here deaf, dumb [inaudible] free speech. Over the last month I have gone on the record several times here, issued several warnings [muffled by Weber breaking in].”

Weber: “Mr. Hesson, another personal attack. I’m going to ask you to step … [A woman’s voice objects to Weber’s interruption] it was personal attack number two, I’ve given a warning [inaudible]. Recess.”

[Woman’s voice: “What are you talking about?”]

When Weber recessed the meeting before Hesson could complete his statement, he exploded in anger. As Weber walked out of the room, he called, “I’m going to tell you—I’m going to tell you, I’m hauling your sorry ass, you [muffled] bitch, [The person operating the camera spoke: “Uh ho!”] right into federal court.”

Hesson was quickly surrounded by six of the deputies who had been stationed in the room. The videotape was made by another sheriff’s employee.

A local news report after the disruption quoted one person in the hall as saying that commissioner David Humke “tried to leap over a deputy to get to Hesson and was waving his finger in Hesson’s face.” The videotape doesn’t support that account. Humke quietly inserted himself between Hesson and Weber as Weber departed. Humke didn’t raise his voice or make any gestures. His hands were in his pockets.

Hesson: “What do you want?”

Humke: “Knock it off.”

Hesson: “What you you mean, knock it off? Don’t [muffled] me.”

Weber is following language in the Open Meeting Law Manual published by the Nevada attorney general’s office. One portion of the manual says a public body “may prohibit comment if the content of the comments is a topic that is not relevant to, or within the authority of, the public body, or if the content of the comments is willfully disruptive of the meeting by being irrelevant, repetitious, slanderous, offensive, inflammatory, irrational, or amounting to personal attacks.”

However, the manual isn’t the state open meeting law; it is an interpretation of the law. And the same section of the manual calls on public bodies to remain “neutral as to the viewpoint expressed” by citizens during public comment periods.

Gary Peck of the American Civil Liberties of Nevada said, “We know there is a disruption [factor], but there is also a right to criticize public officials.” He said he considered the remark about Humke’s law education to be fair comment. Because of the Weber incident, the ACLU is evaluating the rules governing public comment in public meetings.

Hesson’s comments dealt with George Bush and the Iraq war, and the impact of the commission’s speech policies on discussion of the war. (Local governing bodies are sometimes called on to adopt resolutions on national affairs. The Reno City Council has adopted an anti-nuclear position, and the Sparks City Council this month condemned the U.S. PATRIOT Act.) Earlier, Hesson had made a similar statement to the Reno City Council without interruption.

Before the disturbance during Hesson’s statement, Weber had also directed the removal of citizen activist Sam Dehne after Dehne objected to being taken out of order. (The first 10 citizens are permitted to speak for three minutes each during the comment period; subsequent speakers were given one minute each, and Dehne’s sign-in card was allegedly moved to the bottom of the stack.) This week Weber obtained a restraining order against Hesson.

Open government advocate Andrea Engleman, a former Nevada Press Association director, says, “In the end, a little less arrogance from elected officials and a little more civility from the public would help us all.” She says the comment period should be used to advance the solution to problems, and that citizens should use political campaigns rather than the public comment period to criticize elected officials.

After the commissioners left the hall during the recess, there was an animated but peaceful discussion of free speech among citizens in the hall. There was no interruption or disturbance.

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...