Citing increasing disruptions, harassment, Minneapolis councilmembers turn to lawmakers

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The Minneapolis City Council is considering asking state lawmakers to take action following a recent increase in disruptions and threats. Over the course of an hour in a committee meeting Tuesday, council members one after the other mentioned incidents where they said they’ve been threatened or harassed by members of the public over the last couple of years.

Council Vice President Linea Palmisano recalled protestors disrupting a meeting to the point of sending it into recess two weeks ago. Attendees displeased with several council votes, shouted profanities at members, some while within reach of members.

“I believe in peaceful protest. But I do not believe that what happened in this chamber two weeks ago is peaceful,” Palmisano said opening up the dialogue.

“Some of us really took a lot of abuse in that meeting and in a way that I probably had never imagined before,” Ward 4 Councilmember LaTrisha Vetaw added.

The latest example was not an isolated incident, nor emblematic of any one group of people. Rather, for council members, it was just the tip of the iceberg.

“I had a neighbor tell me that they found — luckily a dud — incendiary device near my back door,” Ward 5 Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison shared. “I had the FBI come and collect a letter that had been sent to my house.”

The stories came pouring out after the committee approved two amendments proposed by Palmisano by a split vote. One would support legislation and/or legislative guidance to more tightly regulate conduct at public meetings. The second would increase penalties against people who assault or threaten public officials with violence.

Asked to comment on the proposed amendments, Hamline University constitutional law professor David Schultz said, when it comes to civility, a line has been crossed. He also believes there are steps to be taken before turning to legislative action.

“Probably the first step is enforcing the existing laws more vigorously before you decide that we need to increase the penalties. And I’m not seeing too many people being arrested at this point,” he said. “Certainly, nobody supports the harassing of public officials. But underneath that, there’s probably a story about why people feel like they’re not being listened to and how the political process needs to maybe pay attention to that.”

The full City Council is expected to take up the proposals Thursday. There are a couple of similar existing bills already in discussion at the State Capitol — one would allow people running for office to opt out of divulging their address for fear of harassment.