Seattle City Council president has no more tolerance for disruptions during meetings

Outbursts at Seattle City Council meetings may be a thing of the past, under new council president Sara Nelson's leadership.

Nelson said the interruptions would no longer be tolerated under her leadership. This comes after a large crowd of chanting protesters packed council chambers during Tuesday’s meeting. The activists were demanding housing and funding for asylum seekers, who are facing a rising threat of homelessness.

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In previous years, it wasn’t uncommon to see protesters at city council meetings. The newly elected council, however, condemned the protesters’ actions on Tuesday. The activists repeatedly interrupted public comment, shouted, refused to leave chambers, and banged on chamber windows.

An item discussed during the meeting was funding for ShotSpotter, a technology that uses acoustic sensors to detect and locate gunshots. The protesters argued the money for ShotSpotter should be used to pay for housing and services for the hundreds of asylum seekers who are arriving almost daily at the Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila.

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"More money for police surveillance and ineffective and racist technologies, like ShotSpotter, means less money for asylum seekers and other low-income people who desperately need housing," said protester Lauren K. during public comment.

With countless interruptions during the meeting, Nelson called for a recess several times to restore order and for security to clear the room. 

"Because that’s our job. Our job is to get the business of the people done. We cannot allow for disruptions that prevent that from happening," said Nelson. "Disruptive behavior is grounds for removal from chambers."

As protesters banged on the chamber windows, council member Cathy Moore said, "I’m going to take a point of personal privilege and request that we have police response. Our physical safety is being threatened by the actions of the demonstrators outside banging on the windows which could easily get broken, and we will have a mob scene."

Seattle Police arrested six protesters. Officials confirmed they were not asylum seekers or refugees. The Seattle City Attorney’s Office said it is reviewing one case so far.

Nelson is all too familiar with disruptions. Nelson, who was a member of the previous council, said similar outbursts were frequent, some council members even encouraged the acts.

"It was frustrating that meetings were so unruly that people in the audience were booing and shouting down other public commenters. That’s disrespectful, that’s wrong, and that’s not going to happen," said Nelson.

Now, with a new council on the dais, the elected leaders say there is no room or tolerance for disorder.

"We need to move away from this egregious and divisive rhetoric," said council member Rob Saka. "That might have played before in that last council. Not today. Doesn't work with this council."

"I will have those people removed for disruptive behavior. We can’t have that, because I don’t want people to feel intimidated from coming to council and voicing their thoughts and concerns," said Nelson. "Come and be respectful of us and of everybody else in the room."

The council president said she is excited about the colleague she will be working with moving forward. One change the public will see on the dais is the presence of all council members at meetings.

"It starts with showing up and doing the work in City Hall and being accessible and responsive to our constituents. And then it also means that we listen to all constituents, and we take the input of stakeholders seriously and try to work that into our legislation so that we don’t have many unintended consequences. And then, finally, we make sure that what we are doing is working. So that means looking back and making sure that our investments and our laws are having the intended impacts and outcomes. And if they’re not, then we have to have the humility and the political will to do something different," said Nelson. "That’s what I want to do as council president, and that requires that we’re able to do our weekly business in an orderly fashion."

Nelson said she fully supports the right to free speech, which council does allow time for during public comment to exercise that right. But she said if protesters think they can come in and disrupt meetings like they did before, she suggests they think again.

"My overall vision as a leader, as council president, is to bring us back to some principles of good governance," said Nelson. "It’s a new council, and we have so much on our plate. There is no shortage of things that we have to do on city council, problems to solve. And if we can’t finish a meeting because we’re constantly disrupted, I can’t have that going on."