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In public forum, Poulsbo mayor demands civility

A recent exchange between City of Poulsbo staff and a concerned citizen that led to the citizen's removal from a public meeting has drawn both criticism and applause.

Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson was thanked and chided for asking Molly Lee, a land owner in Poulsbo's Urban Growth Area, to leave a recent meeting in which Erickson said Lee was disruptive. The trouble came when Lee challenged a city planner and voices began to rise, Erickson said.

"That's where I start to draw the line," she said.

Lee was asked to leave a meeting of the Poulsbo Urban Trails Committee, where she was protesting a conceptual trail in the sensitive Johnson Creek corridor which crosses a portion of her property. Lee has spoken publicly several times on the issue. She frequently attends meetings at the city and county, and was part of a lawsuit filed against the city's Comprehensive Plan last year.

Erickson admitted the situation escalated quickly, and because there is no clear definition of inappropriate behavior in city code, her decision was a "judgment call."

"I obviously always should respect everyone's right to know," Erickson said. "But we don't have an obligation to be abused nor to let our other citizens be abused."

Councilwoman Linda Berry-Maraist, who was also in attendance, stood behind Erickson's decision to ask Lee to leave, she said at a later council meeting.

Erickson said her decision protected the rights to free speech for others in attendance.

She said public meetings should carry a standard of civility and respect. When those practices are neglected, "not only is it my right but it's my responsibility to stop it," she said. "It's not something I like to do, but it's my job."

This isn't the first time Lee has been singled out. In December, Lee received notice from Erickson that city staff were instructed to respond to her only in writing. Erickson said Lee had been making several lengthy phone calls to staff in various departments.

Earlier this month, Lee said she was not helped in person when she came to the planning department at City Hall with a question. She was cautioned by Erickson in 2009 to refrain from making comments against the city's North Viking road construction project, which Erickson deemed inaccurate and inflammatory.

Lee said being asked to leave the meeting was "disconcerting," but because her position as a land owner is relevant she will continue to supply the city with her comments in writing.

"I have a vested interest. I'm not going to be quiet, I care about my property. The law provides me with that opportunity," Lee said. "If Ms. Erickson expects me to just sit there and to accept what people are doing ... it's fairly inconceivable."

Lee has several concerns over the conceptual trail, including that a map bearing the trail will be adopted into the city's Comprehensive Plan and become enforceable in the future. She and several other property owners in that area have told the city they are not willing to give portions of their land to a public trail, and the city has insisted it has no plans to force them to do so.

Lee is also concerned that a new designation for the watershed, changing it from an "open space" to a "wildlife corridor," has left it without policy protection, she said.

She said she was speaking, not yelling, and left time for others to speak at the meeting she was asked to leave.

"I was very motivated and passionate about it," she said. "I wasn't loud, I wasn't yelling, I was not calling people names."

Lee wondered if her frustration at not being heard is shared by others, and if it is linked to sparse attendance at city meetings.

"Does it warrant being kicked out because you're concerned? No. In fact, it warrants to be paid attention to," she said.

According to minutes from the meeting, which occurred Jan. 13, the committee agreed to move the mapped conceptual line out of the Johnson Creek environmental buffer, despite establishing it had been placed there only for planning purposes. The minutes hold no mention of Lee being asked to leave, but do document that she was in attendance.

Erickson's recent "judgment call" didn't sit well with Lee's husband, John, who said he couldn't respect the mayor's decisions regarding his wife.

"I believe that that is a misuse of power. It's a misuse of your authority, I'm appalled by it," he said at a council meeting last month.

The nature of committee meetings differs from City Council sessions, which are more formal and regulated by rules of order. Committees tend to be more relaxed; often the public is invited to join staff and council members at the table, or chime in on discussions. They are lightly attended, and serve the purpose of informing council members more thoroughly on issues. Members then report back to the full council, which retains decision-making power.

City Clerk Jill Boltz said publicly advertised meetings are held to accomplish a business agenda, and usually citizens don't interfere. Through its committee system, the city is especially transparent for members of the public who do have concerns, she said.

"I just can't imagine us being any more open to the public's participation, but obviously there have to be limits and boundaries. It can't impede other people's right to give their input and opinions," Boltz said.

City codes are light on how municipal meetings should be governed, and there is no stipulation that public comments be taken, though they are allowed, Boltz said.

Washington's Open Public Meetings Act requires all governing bodies to meet in public, but does allow for the removal of anyone responsible for an interruption that renders the "orderly conduct of such meeting unfeasible."

Erickson holds open office hours at City Hall each Saturday for citizens who want to converse. Valuing transparency is a trend she began her first day as mayor, when she removed the door to her office. She knows what it's like to be outside city government and to have unpopular opinions. She fought the annexation of her Noll Road farm, which eventually occurred in 2007, before being elected to the City Council and, later, the mayor's office.

She said citizen input, though sometimes harshly delivered, is important, and she'd like to see more of the public take note of business at City Hall. She hopes to implement a Neighborhood Congress program to encourage people to become invested in their immediate surroundings.

"Not only is it the citizens' rights, it's their responsibility to speak up," Erickson said. "Citizen involvement is imperative, but you have to be nice."

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