By SUE SUCHYTA
DEARBORN – Select City Council members, and residents, many aligned with Accountability for Dearborn, clashed at the Feb. 9 council meeting, demonstrating the powerful rallying cry the hint of censorship can create.
During the Feb. 4 Committee of the Whole session, Council President Susan Dabaja, Councilman Michael Sareini and others expressed their frustration with the way public comment times were causing the twice-a-month city council meetings to run late.
When their comments were publicized by the Times-Herald in a story last week, response from those who have been speaking at the meetings was swift and angry.
At the end of the Feb. 9 council meeting, Dabaja spoke extensively to clarify her position, while Council members David Bazzy, Erin Byrnes and Robert Abraham, and City Attorney Debra Walling spoke as well.
Then, at least 18 speakers took an opportunity to express their viewpoint. Nadine Dabaja supported the city council’s perspective, while other speakers articulated outrage over the possibility of censorship. The speakers also voiced frustration with what they felt was the city council’s lack of response to Accountability for Dearborn’s demand for policies to help stem systemic racism within the city.
Accountability for Dearborn members and others began to speak up at council meetings during the summer, when racial tensions and the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum. By speaking at the online meetings, they also lengthened them, which some of the elected officials began to resent.
Bazzy reiterated his immigrant roots and his awareness of the ignominious excess of the late Dearborn Mayor Orville Hubbard’s reign.
He said that the council had come under attack on social media following the Times-Herald’s publication of the city council’s discussion at the Feb. 4 COW concerning the body’s rules of order and the length of public comment time allowed at the council meetings.
“There is a misunderstanding from many of the public on what a city council meeting is,” Bazzy said. “For a limited public forum, the state may impose reasonable regulations on speech so as to reserve the forum for its intended purposes, as long as the regulation does not suppress expression on the basis of the speaker’s views.”
He said that because the city council meeting is a “limited public forum,” the council likely may establish rules which limit content and the extent of the commentary as well as expel people who disrupt the orderly progress of the meeting.
“The council rules of order in Dearborn currently state the chair may impose a three-minute time limit for comment related to an agenda item, and require written comments if a person wishes to expand on either an item of new business, an issue that is not on the council agenda, or an item appearing on the council agenda beyond the allotted time,” Bazzy said. “In contrast to a narrative being spread that somehow this body is trying to limit free speech, but on the contrary, compared to multiple other city councils, this council president has gone out of her way to encourage and allow it.”
He said some city councils limit the number of speakers or the overall amount of time allotted.
Bazzy said that Accountability for Dearborn represents an extreme viewpoint which contends the city’s police department is racist and that Dearborn is a “sundown town” and is implying that the city is complicit in racial segregation.
He said at the other extreme are people who claim Dearborn is a Muslim-enclave operating under Sharia law.
“Dearborn continues to sit under the shadow of the late Orville Hubbard, the mayor of 42 years who created many racist comments over his tenure,” Bazzy said.
He said that today’s Dearborn is no longer Hubbard’s Dearborn.
Bazzy said that the disproportionate police statistics toward black Americans which Accountability for Dearborn cites do not account for the large number of black Americans which pass through the city, and called the group’s conclusions “statistically insignificant.”
He also defended Police Chief Ronald Haddad and his record of bringing diversity and de-escalation training to the city’s police force.
Bazzy also detailed key points of the city charter which define the powers which the city council does and does not have, emphasizing that the city council funds departments, within the set conditions of the city charter, and does not control those departments, including the police department.
Dabaja said the council has patiently listened to speakers during public comment time.
“I think we took an active role and time to engage the administration and voice some of the concerns presented by the members of the public,” she said. “I have repeatedly said that I do respect and appreciate our police department and the men and women that every day put their lives on the line for us, to ensure our safety.
“By the same token, I have always said that, whether it is the police department or any department, there is always room for improvement, and so when comments or statements were being made, repeatedly, over the course of the last year, I listened, and I know my colleagues listened as well.”
Dabaja said the city council held a study session with Haddad to learn important information, such as the type of officer training which is occurring.
“I wanted to know what kind of implicit bias training was going on,” she said. “Do we do the de-escalation of force, and how often is that training happening for our police officers?”
Dabaja said her investigation became more important because of the statements she was hearing during city council meetings from public speakers, and she said that she and some of the city council members met with some of the members of Accountability for Dearborn.
“I took that time, and even though I was told I was ridiculed and made fun of after that meeting ended, which I didn’t appreciate, it still doesn’t derail my feelings and my belief that this is an important issue,” she said.
Dabaja said productive dialogue is important to her, and that the personal attacks against city council members was not acceptable to her.
“That is the type of dialogue that doesn’t get us anywhere,” she said. “We are looking for healthy and productive dialogue, but any member of the public has to be cognizant of what we can and cannot do.”
Dabaja reminded listeners that the city council meets to conduct city business.
“This body has bent over backwards in allowing people to speak, and we have never censored anyone, even when it wasn’t an agenda item,” she said. “The only time I think we have ever muted anyone is if there were personal attacks or profanity or slanderous statements being made.”
Dabaja said members of Accountability for Dearborn have been given more deference than other groups in the past. She said she wants to continue to allow people an opportunity to speak while running the city council meetings in an efficient manner.
“It has nothing to do about censoring speech, and it is insulting to hear,” she said. “I am going to make sure that we get on our website, so people can review, and are clear in that the members of the public are only to address the council verbally on an item that is on our agenda. Everything else has to be resorted to writing.”
Dabaja said she must be sensitive to both the impact of the lateness of the meetings as well as the sensitivity of the subject matter being addressed.
“As an Arab-American Muslim woman, a child of immigrant parents, I recognize and understand the negative effects of racism,” she said. “It is an abhorrent issue not just for me – it is at the core of who I am, and because of that, I have given so much deference to those statements and the comments that are being made.”
City Attorney Debra Walling said the city council’s rules of order are “content neutral” and have been in existence for many years.
“They do indicate that attendees at meetings are invited to share public comments, up to three minutes apiece, on agenda items,” she said. “All other items that do not appear on the agenda or comments in excess of the three-minute time limit or any other matters should be placed in writing and given to the city clerk to be shared with the council.”
Byrnes said she is committed to honoring the voices and lived experiences of members of the black community, as a person and as a council member, and to do more to promote racial justice in the community.
“I see that as my job as a council member, I see that as city business, and, as we celebrate Black History Month, I hope that we can do so with an eye towards recognition of celebration successes and the barriers that have been broken, and continue to be broken, and also an acknowledgement of the work that remains,” she said. “As always, I welcome all feedback and criticism with regard to what I can do better, what I can do more of, and what I can do differently.”
Abraham said that while online meetings have changed the dynamic, city council members only have the duties, responsibilities and powers that are granted to them in their elected positions by the city charter, which was ratified by residents, and that the council establishes its policies and rules of order.
“We have set precedents by breaking our rules of order at times, using an agreed-upon procedural process to suspend the rules of order with a vote of the council,” he said. “I just think it is important that everybody understands that aspect of it as well, that we don’t set a policy that will deal with every circumstance, we set a policy that allows us to have the flexibility to govern and to govern effectively.”
Dabaja said she would like to find a way to allow city council members to engage directly with constituents while running the meetings efficiently.
Speaker Alexandria Hughes, who works in Dearborn, asked them to imagine how she felt, as a black person, after reading the Times-Herald’s article which included city council members’ comments made during the Feb. 4 COW.
“Nothing has changed in Dearborn in terms of legislation and trying to prevent racist outcomes,” she said. “I am an activist because I am black, I have seen what my family goes through, and that is why I am always here.”
Hughes said that when city officials have the ability to do things and they don’t, they cannot expect the public to be nice about the lack of action.
“Dearborn needs to change,” she said. “The police do not love all of us. I just hope that you will actually make some change in regards to making things better for black people.”
Speaker Elyse Hogan, who lives and works in Dearborn, said her unwillingness to reveal her address when she speaks does not mean she is lying about where she lives.
“I know that city council members are tired of hearing us talk about racism at every meeting, and we are tired of talking, but it is clear that you have not actually been listening to us,” she said. “Every week, before you hear us speak, you have already decided in your head that we cannot possibly have anything of value to say, instead of consciously considering the information that we bring to you, which has been researched, is based on data, and carefully prepared and based on real personal experiences. You pretend to listen and just pray for public comment to end as soon as possible.”
Hogan said it seems that the city council members have decided that unquestioning loyalty to the city’s police department is the only option possible.
She said the fact that the police department takes up the largest portion of the city budget should give residents the right to question it.
“Your attempts to gaslight and pressure us into silence will not work,” Hogan said. “Some of you claim we are repeating bloated statistics, and you just brush us off.”
Speaker Beth Bailey said that she thinks the council’s objections are with the content and not the duration, and she believes that council members think that they can’t change things.
“If your best results in the maintenance of racial segregation, then your best is not good enough,” she said. “If you are not the right body for this, then you need to be part of creating one that is.”
Bailey also suggested that the city contract a data analyst to interpret the police department racial-based data.
Jem Manko of Dearborn said her wife, a black Dearborn resident, was triggered in 2018 and experienced a severe mental health episode in which she was triggered by a visual stimulus and pulled a “thin blue line” flag down from a pole.
“When police responded, she was non-violent, cooperative and confused,” she said. “Instead of taking an opportunity to make an example of police caring about community, officers threatened to punch her in the face.”
Manko said there needs to be more addressing how police officers handle mental and behavior health issues.
A Dearborn resident who identified himself as Mahmoud said he was disappointed with council members’ comments during the COW.
“I have never seen the council speak so passionately about something before, until today, and it is about having meetings and silencing constituents so they can go to sleep earlier,” he said. “It is very disappointing.”
Speaker Nadine Dabaja thanked the city council for providing a platform for public comment and allowing people to share their sentiments on such a sensitive topic.
“Council has dealt with these recent attacks with class and grace, while also allowing us to exercise our First Amendment rights,” she said. “I think it is a mischaracterization of council when people label them as a body that is taking advantage of their authority to silence those who are bringing real life problems to the table, all of which they have acknowledged exist on a large scale.”
Other speakers included Sheela Lal, Brian Stone, Amanda Marie Chrysler, Gina Goldfaden, Nourelhoda A. Eidy, Leslie Windless, Jon Akkari, Erin Snap, Brian Church and Priscilla Jenkins, whose messages may be heard at the city’s website, in the posted council meeting recording.
To hear all of the comments made during the Feb. 9 council meeting, or to view other city videos, go to cityofdearborn.org/government, and under the “connect with us” tab, select “Watch CDTV On-Demand,” and select from the menu.