By John Irwin
Union Township Supervisor Russ Alwood made a mockery of the First Amendment when he arbitrarily ended Wednesday’s Board of Trustees meeting.
According to The Morning Sun, Alwood adjourned the Oct. 8 meeting during the middle of the public comment portion after expressing displeasure over what were deemed to be “political” comments from citizens. At the beginning of the meeting, he warned citizens not to talk about those political issues during the comment session, saying the Michigan Townships Association informed him that bringing up politics is not allowed.
Alwood asked Clerk Margie Henry to clarify.
“They said that to bring up any political issues was not allowed in a township meeting,” Henry said.
(Union Township resident Mary Barker) objected.
“Everything in township government is political,” she said. “You’re all elected officials.”
Alwood adjourned the meeting just 18 seconds into (Union Township resident John Zerbe’s) comment, when the resident asked whether Alwood could offer a definition as to what was considered “political.”
“Not tonight,” Alwood responded, before adjourning the meeting.
Alwood’s decision to unilaterally adjourn the meeting drew the ire of some township trustees including Phil Mikus, who had previously questioned whether Alwood was misinterpreting what MTA presented to him.
“I can’t endorse this position that you’re taking,” Mikus said, according to the Sun. “I don’t want it to be seen as a reflection of the entire board’s acceptance of your interpretation of what you heard.”
Alwood resumed the meeting soon after Mikus pointed out it ended before the last item on the agenda, final board member comment, commenced. Public comment was not resumed, however.
Blatant disregard for free speech
This was an act of censorship from an elected official, plain and simple. Just let this next comment by Alwood sink in for a moment:
“I can adjourn the meeting any time I want.”
Either Alwood was ignorant of the law or was fully aware and decided to ignore it anyway. Either way, he was in violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act, a law designed to keep municipal government meetings as open and transparent.
“A presiding officer cannot arbitrarily adjourn a meeting without first calling for a vote of the members present,” reads the Attorney General office’s Open Meetings Act Handbook.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. No vote was taken.
Furthermore, it is incredibly troubling that Alwood would even entertain shutting down an open meeting simply because he grew frustrated with public comments. Confusion over what qualifies as “political” speech in an open government meeting is hardly reason to adjourn.
For one, it is very difficult to discern what might or might not qualify as political speech while speaking in front of elected officials at a government meeting. As a citizen at the meeting pointed out, a case could easily be made that all speech at a government meeting is political by its very nature. A case could also be made that limiting public speech at an open government meeting in almost any way is a violation of citizens’ First Amendment rights.
Leaving that last prospect aside, though, it is clear that Alwood made an incredibly poor decision in unilaterally ending the meeting. It seems clear that there was great confusion among citizens and trustees alike as to what qualifies as political speech. Simply clarifying that, perhaps setting some ground rules, and proceeding from there would have been a much better way to handle this situation than simply pounding a gavel and repeatedly calling the meeting adjourned.
The best option, of course, would have been to let the public speak its mind on any issue a citizen brings forward, regardless of if that speech is political. Otherwise, what good is the First Amendment if a government is telling its citizens what it can and cannot speak about?
In any case, it is disturbing that the elected official tasked with leading an incredibly important government meeting was unable to keep his cool and demonstrate a respect for the law, his citizens and their First Amendment freedoms.
It’s my hope that Alwood and the entire Board of Trustees can use this incident to clarify its codes and to gain a better appreciation of their citizens’ right to free speech, because Union Township deserves better.
John Irwin is the editor and founder of CMU Insider.