Featured photo: Mayor Nancy Vaughan speaks during the June 6 city council meeting (photo by Todd Turner)

Greensboro city council meetings have been known to get heated. 

Members of organizations such as WHOA — Working Class and Houseless Organizing Alliance — often show up to speak on a number of issues such as policing and housing. Those who were inside Greensboro City Hall on June 6 will remember the packed council chambers that brimmed with a slew of people eager to speak. Dozens showed up to support the LGBTQIA2S+ community in the wake of Greensboro Fire Department Captain Dustin Jones’ firing over his racist and transphobic comments on Facebook. During the public comment period, outbursts from those protesting Jones’ firing and counterprotesters alike rang throughout the room and many were escorted from the chambers, some for refusing to stop speaking when their time expired, others for swearing and yelling at speakers. When the doors opened, boos or cheers could be heard from the overflow section in the lobby. 

Greensboro’s Mayor Nancy Vaughan has suggested ramifications for this behavior. 

“We’ve had a number of people disrupting meetings lately,” Vaughan said during a June 29 city council work session, adding that she’d been discussing with City Attorney Chuck Watts as to what a “possible remedy to that would be.”

Currently, speakers at Greensboro city council meetings are allowed three minutes to make comments. Vaughan mentioned that while other municipalities limit their number of speakers, Greensboro does not. In Winston-Salem, the entire public comment period is limited to 30 minutes and speakers must rein in their comments at three minutes.

“I’m not saying that we should cut that back, I think that it’s good that we give people an opportunity to speak,” Vaughan said. “But we’re also giving people an opportunity to abuse it,” she noted during the work session.

Vaughan said that starting with the next city council meeting on July 11, she will propose changes as follows:

  • If someone is removed for being disruptive, they cannot attend in person the next three meetings.
  • If someone comes back and acts disruptively again, they could be banned for six months
  • People would still be allowed to attend by Zoom or by phone, “so that we’re not limiting people’s right to free speech.”

“But we also have the right to conduct a meeting that is not being disrupted, especially when we’re seeing people over and over again,” Vaughan said.

“We’ll do a draft and send it out to council prior to the meeting,” Vaughan announced, adding that Watts is “working on something.”

“I just wanted to make sure that that is agreeable,” Vaughan said.

Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and councilmember Nancy Hoffmann were absent from the June 29 work session where the proposition was discussed, but Vaughan told TCB that they’d “talk to them about it before the meeting.”

In an interview with TCB, Vaughan said that there will not be a vote on the new measures, instead, she will discuss it with the other councilmembers and then announce the changes before the meeting.

‘What’s the tipping point of disruption?’

“It’s clear they’re doing this because of how members of our organization and a few others interact,” WHOA’s Del Stone said during an interview with TCB. Stone explained that people are angry for “good reason.”

“The economy is deteriorating. And when that happens, dissent happens,” Stone stated. “But their response to that is to try to censor us.”

Del Stone of GSO WHOA speaks out against Dustin Jones during the June 6 city council meeting (photo by Todd Turner)

The June 6 meeting was full of “passion” and emotion,” Vaughan said in comments to TCB. But this proposition was not a direct result of incidents that occurred during that meeting, Vaughan said. “It’s something that has been building over time.”

Vaughan added that in previous incidents where people have been removed that it’s never been for what they were saying at the podium. 

“It was always because they were being disruptive,” she said. “They were either shouting out from the audience, or they were speaking over the speaker… It was not for the content of what they said; it was just for disrupting a meeting.”

Vaughan told TCB, “Quite frankly, I think sometimes people come to meetings just to get thrown out. You know, they say their peace and then they get disruptive.”

During the June 29 work session Councilmember Zack Matheny made the claim that this behavior is deterring other citizens from coming to speak their minds at city hall. 

“If the folks want to come yell at us, that’s fine, just yell at us in a more appropriate tone instead of scaring the shit out of the other 300,000 people that might wanna come down and tell us actually what’s on their mind,” he said.

Matheny also voiced safety concerns: “From my perspective, I don’t feel safe in the chambers, and in the last four or five months I don’t feel safe in my house. I will tell you that.”

Other councilmembers such as Sharon Hightower felt uneasy about the change, noting that it seemed like they were trying to “eliminate the audience.”

“You just have to be careful when you start trying to restrict…people’s rights,” Hightower said.

Stone, with GSO WHOA, agreed.

“That public speaking period is a place for people to express problems,” Stone said. 

As for how disruption might be defined, Stone asked: “What’s the tipping point of disruption?”

The next city council meeting will be held on July 11 at Melvin Municipal Office Building, 300 W. Washington St. Those interested in speaking can sign up for a spot in the public comment period here.

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