Gulfport officials plan to push back hard when rude citizens mistreat city employees.
Revisiting a discussion from a few months ago, Mayor Sam Henderson told everyone at the Gulfport City Council’s May 2 regular meeting that the time was past due for such action. He cited an incident from just a few days prior to prove his point.
“At the volunteer luncheon the other day, we had one of our folks – who has been to this meeting and used the ‘N’ word standing here at the microphone – standing down there cussing and hollering at people who are volunteering their time for a charitable cause,” said Henderson. “I think allowing this to progress is just going to invite more of it. So I’d really like to put our foot down hard when it comes to people abusing that right.”
Lee Arrested Again
Henderson did not give the person’s name. But it became apparent that he described Jesse Lee, who has clashed publicly in the past with city officials. Lee used the exact racial slur to which Henderson referred at a council meeting last September. This was just before he pled guilty to a felony battery charge over an altercation with a Gulfport police officer.
Lee, 39, was arrested shortly before noon April 27 at the Casino Ballroom, according to a police report. The arrest affidavit stated that Lee was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, had no visible mental health issues, and was not armed.
The narrative of the affidavit stated that Lee “did then and there, without being authorized, licensed or invited, willfully enter upon or remain on the property of the City of Gulfport located at 5500 Shore Blvd., as to which notice against entering or remaining on said property was given by actual communication from [Gulfport police] Chief Robert Vincent via City Manager James O’Reilly, an authorized representative of [the city, which owns the property]. Subject refused to leave the property after several requests.”
Henderson said that after several previous talks regarding volatile and defamatory exchanges either in person or via email, he wanted the city to respond with force in this particular case.
“We’ve gone too far,” he said of leniency when rude citizens mistreat city employees. “Once people are receiving phone calls at their home on the weekends, when people are being harassed offsite, when people are receiving a number of emails that are well outside the norm of somebody that can communicate their thoughts and make requests – at some point we’ve got to push back on that.”
The mayor added that he wants to see this policy exercised consistently going forward.
New Policy in the Works
City Attorney Andrew Salzman said that one form of necessary action is the creation of a standardized response to requests for public records. That includes notification to the petitioner that the request was received and will be addressed in a reasonable manner.
“The City can’t stop working on what it’s doing just to respond to a public records request,” said Salzman. “We also need to make sure we are very clear in our response. We can respond to a public records request, but we are not answering questions during a public records request. There has to be a way to just be adamant about that and have consistency in that.”
Salzman added that people who feel the City is not responding to their requests appropriately have avenues through which they can seek relief.
“But you are right,” he told Henderson. “We have been dealing with behavior that has been very frustrating for the City to respond.”
Most Citizens Behave the Right Way
The mayor gave credit to those who deal with the City properly.
“We have 99% of people being reasonable – willing to disagree while maintaining some kind of decorum and being respectful to the people they’re talking to,” he said. “Then you have what I would say is a very few bad apples. It’s just flat-out unkind, it’s intrusive. The tone is just to be mean.”
Salzman pointed out that some dispatches to the City can get dismissed when they are just defamatory or profane rants from citizens. He said the City may eventually have to let a judge dictate how such communication should get handled.
These are still acts that put me in an awkward position between my responsibility to protect the employee and the behavior that’s coming from the outside.”
“My concern is – and the city manager has said it many times – we have an obligation to provide a safe work environment,” said Henderson. “There are points where I feel like we should push harder for that. The set of rules that we have to live by as elected officials is different from our employees.”
Making Work Environment Safer
Salzman mentioned that he would bring a proposed ordinance in a couple of months regarding safety issues. He specified the creation of non-public forum areas within government facilities. This would make it illegal for someone to berate employees in a customer service setting of a City department under the guise of free speech.
“For example, at the finance department, individuals can’t just come in and make threatening comments or feel that it is free speech. If you declare it as a non-public forum, they don’t have the right to do that,” he said. “Obviously, here, during your meetings, it is always a public forum. Sidewalks are always a public forum when people protest. There are other areas that are considered public forums. But that doesn’t give people the right to stop the City’s ability to provide their services.”
Several clients in other municipalities have adopted such measures, Salzman added.
“We are trying to make sure we protect everyone here,” he said. “Even as elected officials, you are not subject to defamatory comments. Truth is a defense to anything. There is more that is expected from criticism, but not defamation or allegations of criminal activity. You shouldn’t be subject to those situations. That’s when you can have somebody removed from a public meeting if they won’t cooperate.”
O’Reilly noted that he has been party to council members being verbally abused.
“It’s a fine line between emails and verbal altercations,” he said. “These are still acts that put me in an awkward position between my responsibility to protect the employee and the behavior that’s coming from the outside.”
Council Held to Different Standard
Henderson said that council members are expected to tolerate a level of criticism; it comes with the job.
“But for our regular day-to-day employees to feel like their workplace is made toxic by a few people that just don’t understand how to treat another human being with an ounce of respect – whatever we can do to curb that, I’m in favor.”
Watch the council meeting here.