First Amendment rights concerns arise in Glenwood City Council code of conduct discussion
The rift between Glenwood Springs City Councilor Tony Hershey and Mayor Jonathan Godes widened Thursday after a special session dedicated to creating a council code of conduct.
“I feel like a prisoner designing his own cell,” Hershey said, kicking off the meeting.
Hosted as a work session, the meeting follows on the heels of Hershey’s refusal to honor the council’s request for his resignation in May.
Godes said recent events emphasized the need for a code of conduct, but the conversation pre-dated Hershey’s election.
“I know that some people think everything is about them, but this is not about you,” he told Hershey.
Attorney and Councilor Charlie Willman wrote the code using language from several nearby municipalities with similar forms of local government. City Attorney Karl Hanlon was not present for the meeting.
While much of the code’s text relates to City Council’s roles and responsibilities, Hershey questioned whether certain lines in the proposed code stepped on council members’ rights to free speech.
“Just because I’m a city council person doesn’t mean I lose my First Amendment rights,” he said.
While speech-limiting language is throughout the code, one section under the subhead “Decorum” states during meetings councilors will make “no belligerent, personal, impertinent, slanderous, threatening, abusive [or] disparaging comments.”
Additionally, councilors shall not make personal attacks toward city staff or council members; councilors shall not publicly criticize a city employee or their performance; and, shall not belittle, degrade or otherwise disparage city council members or city staff to the public on social media or otherwise.
“I think this is a dangerous path we’re going down,” Hershey said.
Willman said the code was not drafted to limit council members’ First Amendment rights, and Godes added the document was intended to ensure civil discourse remained civil.
“Of course we have the First Amendment rights, and we can say anything,” Godes said. “But, as a legislative body to be able to have conversations among ourselves and be able to debate ideas and thoughts without it getting personal — I think that’s valuable.”
Enforcement of the code was also a point of disagreement between Hershey and Godes.
“This document only has as much teeth as we put into it,” Godes said. “If you sign and say, ‘I will abide by these rules and remedies,’ then I think we can put something in that document to say if a violation occurs, the signer will resign.”
In its current form, the code only states a councilor who repeatedly breaks the code “should” resign. Godes said he was uncomfortable with “should,” because it was not as definitive as “shall.”
Hershey disagreed, explaining the council could not remove a member without a recall election.
“We are elected by the people,” he said. “My position will continue to be only the people can remove us.”
Godes agreed the council does not have the ability to remove a member without a recall, and a councilor could choose not to resign, even if they signed the code. However, it would look bad in the eyes of the voting public, he explained.
Willman said he made a note to go over the resignation section with the city attorney, because he wasn’t sure about the legality of the wording.
City Council agreed to pick up the code of conduct conversation again at an undetermined date.
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