Protestors at Prichard City Hall last week spoke out against moves the City Council has made to temporarily prohibit certain individuals from attending.
Photo | Lagniappe
Since the beginning of February, the Prichard City Council has banned two outspoken residents from its meetings for a number of reasons. A group of residents is now challenging the moves.
Howard Porter was banned for a month, starting Feb. 1. He admits his comments about the city’s financial situation were heated, but he doesn’t believe they warranted his being banned from the meetings.
“I got in trouble because they don’t like what I say, or the way I say it,” Porter said.
Councilwoman Severia Campbell-Morris read a statement to Porter, according to minutes from the Thursday, Feb. 8, meeting. In the statement, Campbell-Morris told Porter he was being barred from meetings for a month because of his behavior.
Specifically, she cited he was “loud, unruly and out of control” at a meeting on Jan. 18, according to minutes. He was given a verbal warning on Jan. 25 and on Feb. 1 called councilors “idiots, empty heads, ignorant” and other names.
He doesn’t remember exactly what he said to councilors at the time. He admitted to calling them “bubblegum brains.” Porter said he was given two warnings before he was banned Feb. 1.
“I was very upset,” he said. “It was rough.”
Porter questions the unilateral nature of the action. He said there was no vote taken when he was escorted out of the meeting. In the following weeks, including on Feb. 15, armed police officers stood in front of the entrance to the A.J. Cooper Municipal Complex and wouldn’t let him enter.
Randall Marshall, executive director of the Alabama branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said a lot of what is happening in Prichard “raises red flags.”
Elaborating, he said the council can have content-neutral rules, but can’t bar speakers from criticizing them. He said the council can have rules in place to prevent cursing or to keep residents from speaking about things the council cannot control.
“What they can’t do is say ‘you can’t criticize us,’” Marshall said. “Elected officials have to have thicker skin and be able to take criticism directed at them.”
Before the council meeting on Thursday, March 8, a group of protesters stood outside the complex with signs in support of those who had been denied the right to attend the meetings. Among those protesters was Quinn Austin Pugh, who had been banned for a month the previous week.
During the meeting in question, Pugh was summoned to the podium by council President Derrick Griffin, who read from a prepared letter.
Citing Section 15 of City Ordinance 2050, Griffin informed Pugh he was being “barred” from “further audience before the council and its committees for a period of 30 days.”
According to the minutes from the March 1 meeting, Pugh was barred “unless permission is granted by a majority vote of the council.”
Griffin gave Pugh two reasons for the ban, both due to his behavior. The first incident, Griffin said, occured Feb. 15 when Pugh was removed from the meeting after refusing to leave the podium.
“You had already done your presentation and after another citizen had spoken, you attempted to rebut what was said and the comments made by the council,” Griffin read from the letter. “After being escorted outside, you started yelling loud enough to disturb the meeting that was in session at the time and continued until the police were able to get you to calm down.”
At the Feb. 15 meeting, Pugh stood outside the municipal complex, pushed his face against the glass facade and shouted, “They don’t want to know the truth!”
Griffin had also told Pugh he was out of order, but he “refused to adhere and come into order,” according to the minutes.
Pugh returned on Feb. 22 but was not on the agenda, according to the minutes. During a moment of silence for Mobile Police Department officer Justin Billa, Pugh “disrupted the audience” by shouting, “What about the man and woman that were killed? They are just as important,” according to the minutes.
Griffin did not return several phone calls and emails seeking comment. Council attorney Greg Harris Sr. did not return calls seeking comment.
In both Porter’s and Pugh’s cases, the council action seems “retroactively punitive” and “arbitrary,” Marshall said. In addition, he said residents have the right to attend meetings.
Katie Davis, another outspoken resident, said she’s also been warned she’ll be barred from the meetings.