WATERVILLE — The City Council voted to withdraw a proposal that would have regulated comments and behavior at council meetings.

In lieu of the resolution, the council committed itself on Wednesday to following the guidelines in “Robert’s Rules of Order,” which already governs meeting decorum.

The proposal on regulating meeting behavior, which was put forward by Ward 3 Councilor Lauren Lessing and engendered much discussion among councilors and attendees, would have prohibited attendees from “commenting, clapping, shouting” or booing, interrupting speakers or engaging in private conversations during council meetings. The proposal also would have prohibited speakers from addressing individual council members and limited speakers to three minutes during Community Notes and two minutes during other discussions.

Those who fail to adhere to the standards laid out in the new policy could have been asked to leave or could have been escorted out of meetings.

At the start of discussion on the proposed policy, Lessing argued that the rules would not prevent discussion of issues or ideas but would prevent behavior that could be chilling to free speech.

“There’s a big difference between responding to an issue and attacking somebody’s personal character,” Lessing said. “I’m hopeful that these rules will ensure that every citizen who comes here will be treated with respect.”

In her classrooms, Lessing said, she has seen discussions and even disagreements derailed by personal attacks. She said such attacks ultimately intimidate and discourage speech which she said was “detrimental to democracy.”

Councilors Winifred Tate, Ward 6 and Steve Roule, Ward 1, pointed out that the rules laid out in Lessing’s proposal already fall under the “Robert’s Rules of Order,” which currently governs meetings.

Mayor Nick Isgro also questioned the need for such a policy and noted that federal case law errs on the side of freedom of speech

“Generally, if city councils open the floor to the public, once that door is open you can stop personal attacks; but outside of that, there is very little limit to what you can put on people’s speech,” Isgro said.

Isgro also warned that if the council were to approval the policy, he would need to hold council members to the same standards.

Residents came out for and against the policy, with opponents framing the resolution as a suppression of free speech rights at meetings open to the publi,c while supporters said the policy could make all speakers feel safer at council meetings.

Tom Nale, 34, an attorney, spoke forcefully against the policy, pointing out that it seemed to be linked to disagreement about the budget process.

“Disagreement is fine. It does not mean that someone is being disrespectful,” Nale said. “The stated rationale on your part is that this is actually being done to encourage discourse, and I think it its going to discourage discourse.”

Gary Mayheux, a Ward 5 resident, also wondered if the proposal had come in response to citizen disagreement.

“It appears that First Amendment rights only apply to protect free speech that (Lessing) agrees with,” said Maheux, reading from a prepared statement. “Will the residents and businesses lose our civil liberties in Waterville? That is the end goal of Councilor Lessing’s resolution.”

In other business, the council voted 5-1 in favor of selling 19 Summer St. to Donald Zaltzburg, owner of 23 Summer St. Zaltzburg has committed himself to demolishing the building at his own expense and paying half of the back taxes — around $4,000 — on the property. The council voted 4-0, with Tate and Jackie Dupont, Ward 6, abstaining, to sell a single-family home at 232 Water St. to the Waterville Community Land Trust for $2,000, with the money, minus costs, going to the South End Neighborhood Association.

The council voted to postpone discussion of the municipal and schools budget as it awaits information on state funding. Gov. Paul LePage signed a state budget early Tuesday. Isgro said he expected to have the state numbers and work through the budget next week. The body also voted to postpone conflict of interest discussions until city solicitor Bill Lee was available.

Kate McCormick — 861-9218

[email protected]

Twitter: @KateRMcCormick

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