City Council members in the hot seat as chamber becomes a venue for protests

City Council members in the hot seat as chamber becomes a venue for protests

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Demonstrators concerned about immigration policy packed the Charlotte City Council meeting Monday night and took over. Much of the meeting was loud as demonstrators shouted over each other and demanded to be heard, while not allowing City Council members to speak.

City leaders don't have control over federal immigration law, but the chamber did provide a forum for the crowd to express frustration.

"No more ICE, no more ICE," people in the crowd chanted as they stood up and held signs. It's a reflection of fear among the immigrant community about mass deportations under the Trump administration, which have not materialized; and the recent travel ban affecting people from seven largely Muslim countries, which was derailed by federal court action.

City Council members are no strangers to protests, but this one was different in terms of volume and disruption.

"It is a time for our citizens to have their voices heard. It is not a dialogue and we will be listening very carefully to you," said Mayor Jennifer Roberts toward the beginning of the meeting, as she also requested respect among those in attendance.

When it came time to vote on city business, such as the massive Transportation Action Plan which helps pay for road improvements and sidewalks, council members had to shout across the dais to be heard.

Once Mayor Roberts adjourned the meeting early and told protestors they could talk one-on-one in the lobby, the dynamic changed. Not all citizens stayed, but many gathered in small groups with council members to share their concerns about immigration policy and community issues.

Council members experienced a similar situation last Fall, after a police officer shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott during a confrontation. Protests and demonstrations had pockets of violence, and lasted for several days. Concerned citizens once again filled the Government Center chamber.

Community concerns were heard and city leaders responded with a plan of action to address opportunity, jobs and housing.

"There's a time and a place. I'll talk to anybody, anywhere, on any issue. But it's got to be civil discourse and it can't involve yelling and cussing," Kenny Smith, who is a Republican on City Council.

Like his colleagues, Smith stayed behind to talk with constituents each time. He also expressed concern about the delivery of Monday night's message.

"If you give in to every group who comes down and yells at you, you're setting a precedent. I don't think is good for the rest of the citizens," said Smith. He also conceded that there were few good options on how to handle the hostile gathering. "I think you do what we did last night. We called recess and went out to the lobby. You can't hate up close."

Democrat Julie Eiselt said it's important for the City to review policy and procedures considering the new movement to disrupt meetings. Eiselt said she understood the concerns citizens expressed, but felt the shouting and yelling overshadowed the importance of their message and its effectiveness.

That kind of forceful delivery could also become the new normal for political leaders at the local, state and federal levels. It's part of a hyper-political environment under the new Trump Administration said Dr. Michael Bitzer, Political Science Professor and Provost of Catawba College.

"When you have local leaders like Mayor Roberts and other City Council members sit and engage with citizens face-to-face, rather than from behind a podium, that is most effective," said Bitzer. He said when politicians refuse to discuss or fail to attend community meetings or town halls, it can backfire and fuel the discord.

Many members of Congress have been under attack at their own town hall forums, and at forums where they have been invited by concerned citizens. Some have joined the discussion via teleconference, instead of facing an angry crowd in person.

"If you show that you are willing to listen, even if you may not politically or policy-wise agree with the individual, at least you would have your opportunity to have your say," said Bitzer. The willingness to take the harsh criticism shows a broader base of constituents that the politician is representing everyone, which is their job."

It's no easy task, as Charlotte City Council members learned again Monday night. A spokesperson for the city manager says they are reviewing meeting procedures.

Copyright 2017 WBTV. All rights reserved.