Open-government activists’ tirades prompt City Council rule change
Sam Bellomio once showed up at a Seattle City Council meeting with a sign that spelled out the acronym for the phrase “freedom u can’t kill” (Spell it out yourself.)
A few weeks later, Bellomio called Councilmember Tim Burgess a “dick.”
In more than 400 appearances before the Seattle City Council over the past three years, the 32-year-old civil engineer has called for more openness in government and regular town hall meetings so residents can air their grievances.
Bellomio’s bellicosity has so worn the patience of the nine-member body that they are considering tightening the rules regarding public comment periods.
Proposed rule changes released Nov. 19 forbid outbursts and other disorderly conduct from those addressing the council and allow the chair of the meeting to eject anyone for breaking the rules.
Councilmembers can ban people from speaking at future meetings if they have been disruptive at multiple meetings.
Seattle City Council Chair Sally Clark said Bellomio and his organization, StandUP-America, have forced the council to make changes.
“I hate that we’re going down that road,” Clark said. “There is unfortunately a pattern of disrupting the meeting, pushing the boundaries of the way the rules were constructed, that caused me concern about whether we were able to conduct a meeting.”
Bellomio argued that the proposed rule changes were drafted specifically to stop the speech of StandUP-America and, by extension, shut down free speech for other Seattle residents.
The Revised Code of Washington requires that public comments are open, he said.
“It says you have the right to speak freely,” Bellomio said. “What limit is there to ‘freely’?”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington said the council should clarify the proposed changes.
The ACLU said the city council rules should call for a verbal warning before ejecting people from meetings.
The rules allow the council to ban repeat offenders from speaking at future meetings, but should specify how many times someone can cause a disturbance.
Bellomio and StandUP-America President Alex Zimmerman have been testing the limits of council rules for years.
Bellomio calls city councilmembers criminals who are to blame for rising homelessness and unemployment.
Zimmerman is more dramatic. He calls the city council mafia members and banditos, comparing their actions to Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. He frequently shouts retorts to the city council and audience while other people are speaking and laughs loudly during the meetings.
Clark said she’s got thick enough skin to take those hits: “Sam and Alex call us idiots, other people call me an idiot, too.”
Yet the group has clearly struck a nerve. Clark told Bellomio he couldn’t speak at meetings for two weeks after using strong language at a meeting, but she didn’t enforce the decision because the existing council rules did not allow it.
Clark said input from the ACLU, the Municipal League and the League of Women Voters will inform any rule changes.
However, she stopped short of saying rule changes would solve the council’s problems with StandUP-America. Tighter rules will allow the council to treat everyone equally — holding the angry dissenter and the peaceful speaker to the same two minutes — but she didn’t think it would change the way Bellomio and Zimmerman behave.
“Until they get bored with us, I don’t think this stuff is going to change,” Clark said.
The city council will vote on the proposal in December.
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