Ryan Alexander-Tanner

A Portland City Council meeting was primed to blow up yet again on March 8, when Mayor Ted Wheeler hit the pause button.

After listening to an hour and a half of near-constant opposition to a policy that would allow 60-day exclusions of disruptive meeting attendees, the mayor announced he’d back off, convincing his colleagues to push a vote back a week.

“I was disappointed that we did not have more of an opportunity to engage with ACLU [of Oregon] on this,” Wheeler said, referring to the civil liberties group’s repeated objection to the new policy. His intent in holding off, he said, was to “see if we can work over the course of the next week with the ACLU and come up with a compromise that is more acceptable....”

Someone in the room yelled out “Fascist!” because that’s what people at City Council meetings yell out these days. Another demanded that Wheeler hold a meeting with members of the public to listen to their concerns (he did two days later). Otherwise, all the pent-up protest that had been building in the room just sort of seeped out.

The next day, the mayor repeated his intention to work toward better policy on OPB’s Think Out Loud, saying: “Frankly, I’m in no particular hurry. I’d rather get this right.”

That’s a goal we all should share. After all, the ordinance Wheeler’s pushing would essentially re-instate a policy that a federal judge swatted down in 2015.

Mayor Charlie Hales used to wield broad powers that allowed him to exclude troublesome meeting attendees for a month or more. But when one of those attendees—council mainstay Joe Walsh—challenged an exclusion, Walsh handily defeated city attorneys. [PDF]

US District Judge Michael Simon found Hales and the city were infringing on peoples’ First Amendment rights with the exclusions, and that officials couldn’t simply ban someone from meetings because they expected there might be commotion.

Now Wheeler wants to bring the practice back. For months, his office has worked with city attorneys on a code change he feels will pass legal muster, and he’s confident a City Council exasperated by repeated interruptions will back him up.

But given the likelihood the ordinance would be challenged in court, Wheeler’s instinct to sit down with potential opponents was a good one. It’s too bad it was also extremely fragile.

When an unexpected flight cancellation meant ACLU Legal Director Mat dos Santos couldn’t attend a planned sit-down on Tuesday, Wheeler’s office decided to push forward with a March 15 vote without the engagement the mayor had welcomed.

“We will bring the resolution up for a vote on Wednesday,” Michael Cox, a spokesperson for Wheeler, said Monday. “I do not anticipate any significant amendments at this time.”

What this strongly suggests is that Wheeler felt he’d “gotten it right” all along, and that not much would have changed after the planned tête-à-tête.

That’s certainly possible. The ACLU plainly thinks the mayor’s proposal is illegal. But for a man who’s not in any hurry, Wheeler’s certainly moving quickly.