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Despite October disruption, no new rules for Duluth City Hall

Duluth city councilors leave their chambers as shouting protesters disrupt the Oct. 22 city council meeting. (file / News Tribune)

In the aftermath of a disruptive protest that forced the Duluth City Council into a temporary recess, Mayor Emily Larson and Council President Noah Hobbs vowed to look at whether new rules were needed to better maintain order at City Hall.

Following a deep dive into the city's policies, however, they decided sufficient rules already were on the books to head off future disruptions, such as the one that occurred Oct. 22, when the City Council authorized the Duluth Police Department to purchase protective crowd-control equipment over the shouts of people chanting: "No Line 3. No riot gear for the DPD."

Larson found what she was looking for in a City Hall Use Policy adopted in September 2017.

"When we pulled those rules out the day after. We said, 'Actually this might work.' Rather than having a knee-jerk reaction to a very uncomfortable and tense one-time experience, we have this thoughtful policy that aligns with state law that allows people in this building to get their work done during the day. It also protects free speech, and it does so while enforcing civility and ensuring that people are safe and protected. So we're really just looking to underline that for the public," she said.

Hobbs concurred, saying: "Initially, we thought maybe we needed to update our standing rules, but after further examination of the City Hall Use Policy, we figured we could just use that throughout the entire City Hall and all its public spaces, versus having to recreate the wheel."

The policy has been posted in City Hall at the elevators and in the rear of council chambers to remind people of what behavior will and will not be tolerated.

"With folks being aware of what the City Hall rules are, it should be easier to enforce," Hobbs said, noting that a dedicated sergeant at-arms also will be on hand at future Council meetings to maintain order.

"We'll give a warning first if someone deviates from the City Hall Use Policy, and then if they continue to deviate or violate that policy they will be removed from council chambers," he said.

Hobbs acknowledged the Oct. 22 situation was complicated by the large number of people involved in disruptive protest, but he said: "I think having experienced that meeting, we are more prepared to handle something like that event, and we have a pretty clear idea what we would do."

"I think we'd likely call a recess to the meeting until the individuals who want to disrupt it are removed from chambers, so we can conduct the public's business," Hobbs said.

By the same token, he suggested a repeat event of that magnitude seems unlikely.

Keith Hamre, who was serving as Duluth's interim chief administrative officer when the disruption occurred, said that in his 21 years working at City Hall, no other event compares to what he saw that night.

"We've had packed council chambers before and a lot of debate and discussion, but never a disruption like that," he said.

Larson, too, considers the events of Oct. 22 an anomaly.

"We haven't seen it before, and I don't know if we'll see it again," she said. "There are certain elements that just fused together to create that spark, or gasoline torch."

The City Hall Use Policy says: "An individual or group may not interfere with public business, city councilors, city employees or other clients and visitors, or obstruct the free flow of traffic in any way. Interference may include, but is not limited to, such things as blocking stairwells, entrances and exits, generating loud noise and exhibiting intimidating behaviors."

Hobbs said the demonstrators on Oct. 22 — many of them masked, chanting and waving banners — were in clear violation of that policy.

Yet he stands by the way councilors handled the conflict.

"I think, given that specific night, we made the best decision we could out of less-than-ideal options," Hobbs said about the decision to cut short public comment and bring the issue directly to a vote over the loud objections of protesters.

"I don't think anyone was happy with the outcome. I don't think councilors were happy with the outcome. But whatever the alternative outcomes would be, you would also have people equally unhappy," he said.

Larson, too, said she believes the council made the best of of a tough situation.

"There are several options you could take, but I think the one the council chose was a respectful, patient option that reflected that there's the business of a city that needs to get done despite strong personal opinions and how to respond to that with civility, despite it being incredibly uncomfortable," she said.

Peter Passi

Peter Passi covers Duluth city government and community issues. A graduate of Carleton College, he has worked as a reporter for more than 30 years and joined the Duluth News Tribune newsroom in 2000.

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