The Killeen City Council needs adjustments to the way it operates.
That fact was obvious during an emotionally charged council meeting Tuesday.
The topic was an incident that occurred during a July 21 meeting, at which longtime local developer Gary Purser Jr. directed a barnyard expletive at the council after one member suggested tabling consideration of a land annexation vote Purser had brought to the council. Two other members also had expressed reservations about an immediate vote on the matter.
Purser asserted the three council members consistently voted against his projects, and he singled them out by name during his complaint. The three council members happen to be African American; Purser is Caucasian.
Councilwoman Shirley Fleming — one of the members who was singled out — expressed her objections to Purser’s behavior and subsequently posted on her Facebook site that she felt that Purser’s remarks were racist in nature and that she felt threatened.
She subsequently asked for Tuesday’s discussion item to be added to the agenda, and it was.
In the month since the incident occurred, Purser’s outburst — and Fleming’s reaction — have been talked up around town.
Part of the reason for the continued attention devoted to the issue is the fact that Fleming’s post remained on her Facebook site.
While Tuesday’s council meeting was designed to address the issue of citizen language and respect, it did little to resolve the issue.
More than a half-dozen residents showed up to offer their comments on the issue Tuesday, with most taking the side of Fleming regarding the issue of respect for council members.
However, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Kilpatrick said that although he was troubled by the incident, he didn’t see any racial component to Purser’s comments.
And Councilman Steve Harris, who was also singled out, said Tuesday he didn’t feel personally attacked by Purser’s remarks.
Regardless of how council members feel, there’s no doubt Purser bears responsibility for his behavior.
But let’s not overlook Fleming’s role in keeping the pot stirred for the last four weeks.
While some speakers, including a representative from the local NAACP chapter, called for Purser to apologize and one even urged that he be barred from doing business from the city temporarily, no one came forward to suggest that Fleming apologize for alleging that Purser’s remarks were racist in nature.
And while it may indeed be a good idea for Purser to clear the air with a formal apology, it would also be helpful if Fleming were to retract her allegations about racism. Yet Tuesday she said she stood by what she had posted on her site back in July.
If the council and the community are going to get past this unfortunate incident, it’s important that everyone involved admit that they overreacted.
Certainly, Purser was frustrated at what he believed to be unfair treatment by several council members, but they deserved his respect, and his outburst was unprofessional and uncalled for.
Mayor Jose Segarra noted as much as he admonished Purser and said that if he had continued with his coarse language, he would have been removed.
But though Fleming has every right to feel disrespected and upset, she crossed the line when she publicly impugned the character and reputation of a longtime community businessman by alleging racism in her social media post.
It’s time to make things right — and protocols for citizen and council language and respect, with a legal and logical basis, as suggested by Kilpatrick — is an important first step.
But if the issue was so important that it was added as an agenda item, why didn’t council members take any kind of action Tuesday to move the discussion forward?
The council currently operates under a set of rules and procedures that was approved in 2018. Under the heading “Decorum” is the following directive: Council Members shall demonstrate respect and courtesy to one another, to City Staff and to members of the public appearing before the Council.
The responsibility of residents who attend meetings is spelled out as well.
Under the heading “Citizens’ participation” and subhead “Rules of Decorum,” the first sentence says it all: Persons attending City Council meetings should observe the same rules of propriety, decorum and good conduct as they would show in a courtroom, a place of worship, or at any other serious or solemn occasion during which matters of importance are being considered.
It’s fair to say that respect was lacking at the July 21 meeting, as well as in subsequent discussion on the matter.
But while the current council rules spell out how members and the public should behave, it doesn’t specify sanctions against those who don’t — on both sides.
People who flagrantly disregard the protocols should pay a price for their actions.
Members of the public who show disrespect for council members, the mayor or city staff should be removed from the council chambers and possibly assessed a fine in some cases.
Council members who disrespect another member, disparage a speaker or use abusive language should be asked to step down from the dais for the remainder of the meeting. Further, repeated infractions should put the member at risk of removal from office by a vote of the remaining council members.
These sanctions may seem severe, but hopefully they would serve as a deterrent and would seldom be employed.
Will council members have the courage to put these kinds of guidelines in place?
This entire episode has been disheartening, distracting and divisive to our city. With all the difficult issues confronting us today, it’s unfortunate that in this incredibly diverse community we can’t find a way to talk with each other, rather than at each other.
Sadly, this single episode points to so many other areas we need to address as a community, and yet we’re falling short when it comes to simple communication.
We’re better than this — and we know it.
At council meetings, school board meetings and everywhere else we gather in our community, let’s start the conversation.