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Trolling at Dallas City Council Meetings Leads Mayor to Question Public Comment

A handful of "performance arts speakers" are disrupting municipal meetings all over North Texas. Will the Dallas City Council cut their mic?
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Mayor Eric Johnson in the flag room at City Hall.

Before the Dallas City Council could even start a discussion about the merits of having an open microphone at its meetings, they got an example of why the item made the agenda in the first place.

Alex Stein, known for appearing during the public comment portion of meetings all over North Texas in tirades that are intended to go viral, stepped up to the mic and used his allotted three minutes to embark on an unhinged and mostly racist rant. It wouldn’t be the first time he had co-opted the public comment time to be the petulant in the room, and it probably won’t be the last.

It was also an apt demonstration of why Mayor Eric Johnson asked the city attorney’s office to look into what the city was legally required to allow in regard to public comment. 

“I think what we’re concerned about here is our meetings, not just being disrupted in terms of the time, but also our residents watching on TV or listening and having these meetings become a platform for foolishness and silliness,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to get the people’s business done.”

Johnson said that commenters who are “acting in bad faith” are taking away from city business and also taking spots from commenters who travel to City Hall with legitimate concerns. At most council meetings and briefings, the first five speakers who sign up to speak about items not on the agenda address the body at the beginning of the meeting. The remaining speakers have their turn after the agenda is complete, which means that many have turned off the live stream or left the chambers by the time they get to speak.

In previous meetings, some speakers have used racist and anti-Semitic speech or gestures during their time at the microphone. According to the Council’s rules of decorum, a speaker can be removed for “making personal, impertinent, profane or slanderous remarks or who becomes boisterous while addressing the city council or while attending the city council meeting.”

Johnson said that since he is the presiding officer of the meeting, he was tasked with determining what was just rude and what violated the rules. 

 “I don’t really want to be making decisions about what I think is rude behavior,” he told his colleagues. According to the current rules of decorum, a council member can request a point-of-order if they feel a speaker has run afoul of the rules, and the full body can vote on whether the mayor should act.

Senior Assistant City Attorney Cal Estee and Deputy Chief Bert Vandenberg explained that as long as the city had the open microphone period on the agenda, it would have to contend with people who would like to abuse it. However, Estee also explained that the Texas Open Meetings Act only requires the city to offer public comment on agenda items, so the council could opt to nix the open microphone altogether or limit it. That could mean waiting until the end of the meeting, during briefings only, during a council recess, or on one specific day. The council could also opt to institute a disruptive speaker standard that would further outline what the city considers to be disruptive speech during a meeting.

“The city can impose reasonable restrictions on speakers to maintain order and promote efficiency,” Estes said. 

Ann Stehling, a Texas open meeting attorney, said that while government meetings are required to offer public comment on agenda items, even then, there are still restrictions. For instance, while a Council can’t prohibit a speaker from criticizing it, the law also says that it can act if said speech violates other laws.

“For example, defamatory statements would fall within the carve-out for ‘public criticism that is otherwise prohibited by law,’ and a city council could take reasonable measures to prohibit the making of defamatory statements during public comment,” she said.

When Estes and Vandenberg presented options to the council’s Ad-Hoc Administrative Affairs Committee prior to last week, most felt that they would prefer to still offer the open microphone, but perhaps only on briefing days. That sentiment didn’t change when the options were presented to the full Council Wednesday. Most members said they didn’t particularly enjoy some of the things that happen during the open microphone period, but they weren’t comfortable eliminating the option altogether, either. 

“I want the public to continue to speak, but I want us to have some ability to shut down that type of language because it keeps coming,” said Mayor Pro Tem Carolyn King Arnold. “It would be different if it was a one-timer, but when you see a pattern, I think we need to begin to stand up and protect the integrity of our meetings.”

“It really is about having efficient and orderly meetings,” said Councilwoman Gay Donnell Willis, who chairs the Ad Hoc committee. “We do want to hear from the public…the disruptive speaker standard is something we can do to add a little more strength to what we’re able to do in these meetings, to hopefully have the same expectation of those who come to this mic to be efficient and orderly as they expect of us when conducting our meetings.”

Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn said she didn’t feel comfortable allowing the antics of a handful of people to be the reason the city eliminated the open microphone.

“We do see quite a bit of nonsense and some very crazy things, including Alex Stein, including this morning—songs, puppet shows from the anti-fluoride people, frequent tirades that are anti-Semitic—but we’ve also learned some things that have helped us resolve some problems,” she said. “The performance arts speakers are not actually so frequent or so time-consuming as to be an unreasonable tradeoff for open government.”

“For some reason, folks decided they wanted to get TikTok famous, or Instagram famous,” said Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Omar Narvaez. “But when we have a certain individual who decides to do sexual innuendo when we have a group of kids and their teachers sitting here in chambers, that person deserves to be thrown out of here. But at the same time, I don’t want to not hear from the public.”

Others said they felt that the council could probably do a better job of speaking up when they felt speech violated the council’s rules of decorum instead of leaving the matter wholly to Johnson’s discretion.

“There was discussion around how we could be more supportive of your role by raising a point-of-order if there is something that’s offensive,” Willis said to Johnson regarding the Ad Hoc’s last meeting. “Because to come to that point, there’s probably more than one person that’s feeling that concern.”

Ultimately, the Council opted to continue the conversation before deciding on a plan of action. But as if to give them plenty to think about, Stein had another outburst as the discussion began to wrap up. “Now you’re talking about me!” he yelled as several City Council members moved to make a point of order to remove him from the chambers. 

“The rules haven’t changed,” Johnson said. “He knows he’s being disruptive.”

“I’ll be back, Mayor Johnson!” Stein shouted.


Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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