Council drops plan for limits on speech

Would have curbed airing of minority positions, some say


May 25, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Council agreed last night to drop a proposed policy that critics said would have limited council members' freedom of speech and squelched minority views on the quasi-public board.

The policy proposal was part of a page-long list of values and administrative procedures developed at a retreat two weeks ago by the 10-member council, which oversees the Columbia Association.

Most of the items were noncontroversial statements about how the council, which has been torn by controversy in recent years, should work together.

"Engage in open discussions that encourage and respect differing positions," one point states.

"Strive for consensus, but agree to disagree based on the merits," reads another.

But one item raised concerns for some council members: "On issues that have been addressed by the Board, avoid taking minority positions public without first informing the Board of your intent."

Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills said that unlike the others on the page, that point was not one that the council had agreed to at its retreat at Wye River Plantation.

"We are all free to speak to the press or our constituents" about council matters, except if the matter is confidential for some reason, Russell said. "It's not what we decided or expressed."

Councilwoman Pearl Atkinson Stewart of Owen Brown disagreed, saying the matter had been discussed "at great length."

"This was to help us not have the sidebar conversations that caused a lot of turmoil previously," Stewart said.

Stewart pointed out that another item on the list would ensure that minority views would be included in news releases about council action.

Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown also spoke in favor of the restriction.

Once the council decides a matter by majority vote, continued public discussion of it by council critics "would be damaging to the final outcome," Brown said.

The measure would help the council speak with one voice, she said.

"Once it was done, the message going forward would be unified," Brown said.

But several council members sided with Russell, who said she was also speaking for Steven Pine of Kings Contrivance, who was absent.

"I think this is a restriction on the minority position that's not placed on the majority position," said Councilman Joshua Feldmesser of Wilde Lake.

Tom O'Connor of Dorsey's Search suggested that the item be dropped from the list, and no one, including Stewart, objected.

The council will give the amended list a second reading at its next meeting, and then vote to formally adopt it.

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