Mayor Orders Police to Clear Commission Chambers After Citizen Protest
Hilligoss Forced to End Meeting Without Vote on Controversial Resolution
Last updated 1/4/2023 at 12:55pm
A raucous end to Tuesday's city commission meeting resulted in Mayor Jack Hilligoss ordering police to clear the room after an angry crowd of more than 30 mostly older citizens objected to a proposed resolution limiting citizen comments at meetings.
The group continued their protest outside the meeting chambers, singing and shouting during a five minute recess.
The disruption began during commissioner comments regarding a resolution proposed by the mayor that would require citizens to sign an affidavit prior to the meeting to "swear or affirm, under penalty of perjury" before being allowed to speak.
The proposed resolution would restrict speakers to agenda topics, limit public comments to three minutes, and all speakers to a 30 minute period, despite some recent controversial issues which have taken as much as an hour to receive public comments. The new rules would give the mayor the ability to "regulate irrelevant debate."
Citizens were not allowed to address the issue at the time it was discussed, but many had used comment time at the beginning of the meeting to speak in opposition to the proposed resolution. Several were passionate in their defense of the right to be heard, calling the ordinance an attack on First Amendment guarantees of free speech.
When the issue was finally raised more than an hour into the meeting, few who had spoken in opposition had left the room, and many raised their voices to disrupt the proceedings.
Hilligoss finally decided to end the meeting after a discussion with the city attorney and police, allowing a conclusion without forcing the arrest of people who refused to leave the room.
"If people show up at a meeting, there's probably a good reason. We need to listen to those people," 36-year resident Catherine Price told the commission during the public comment period.
"To allow these people who are 'experts' to come into this meeting and have free rein to speak, and then not allow the public to ask questions or give a rebuttal is wrong," Price said, adding that the proposed rules showed "disdain and even outright hostility toward the public."
"It's a way to further chill public participation," Price told commissioners. Citizens are more than "an annoyance or impediment to your getting home on time," she added.
"If you're too busy to hear the people, you're just too busy. Put in your resignation," added local minister Terry Christian.
Former mayoral candidate Tammy James also objected to the resolution, pointing out that many people are concerned or angry about a perception of explosive growth in Lake Wales. "You're adding to that anger" by attempting to limit citizen participation, she said during public comment.
Resident Juanita Zwaryczuk asked if it was "really reasonable to ask citizens to sign an affidavit?" saying the "complicated form" was "for many, intimidating."
One compared it to discriminatory "red-lined" neighborhoods to keep people "in their place." Another observed that the resolution gives the impression that for commissioners, "listening to citizens is a burden. Citizens are becoming more and more irrelevant."
The city only recently hired a "communications director" to help the City of Lake Wales increase "two-way communications" with residents.
"This was a religious statement on my part," Price told LakeWalesNews.net after the meeting. "I'm a Quaker, and we have a tradition. When things get bad, we will speak out, and if necessary, allow ourselves to be arrested."
"This is changing the fundamental nature of our town," Price added.
In proposing the resolution several weeks ago, Mayor Hilligoss had expressed concern at the length of commission meetings. In a recent commission retreat held at Lake Wales Country Club, commissioners reportedly made comments describing citizens as "uninformed, disruptive, ignorant, and an impediment," according to Price, who was the only member of the public to attend the two-day meeting.
If the city is taking actions that affect people living outside the city limits, "we need to have the wisdom and decency to allow them to speak," Price said. The resolution would bar anyone who is not a city resident or utility customer from speaking at all.
Hilligoss recently sent an icy letter to Mayor Blair Updike of Highland Park after she raised questions about the city's intentions after distributing a map that encircles that small bedroom community in a Lake Wales "Land Use Study Area." Updike would be barred from addressing the Lake Wales commission under the proposed ordinance.
Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson, who has yet to address the issue, has frequently saluted the contributions made by the larger community, citing the numerous non-profit organizations which benefit the city but which are run by boards including many county residents.
When the proposed rules finally came up for discussion by commissioners at the end of the meeting, Commissioner Terrye Howell immediately began questioning their need and purpose, saying that "People need to be able to speak, because they have issues" that need to be heard.
Commissioner Daniel Williams replied that the resolution was needed "because we understand what's going to happen in the future."
Commissioner Danny Krueger responded by expressing his support for the resolution, saying that "as we launch into these great plans that we have for the city, there's going to be all kinds of people who are going to want input into that, they're going to come to our meetings. We're going to have to be a lot more efficient...so people will be disciplined to be focused" when they comment at meetings.
The resolution is expected to be back on the agenda at the January 3 meeting.
Hilligoss, Krueger and Williams, the city's three newest elected officials, have frequently allied themselves in recent divided commission votes, including an August vote to award themselves a $2,400 raise.
The city commission normally meets a total of five times a month, with two agenda workshop sessions and two business meetings. They also sit as the Community Redevelopment Agency board once a month.