Like his predecessors, former Mayor Charlie Hales started every Portland City Council meeting with a reminder about the rules: Anyone can sign up to speak to the council. Keep things PG. No cursing. Don’t interrupt. And don’t applaud or boo.
“If you agree with someone’s point of view and you want to show support, it’s OK of you want to give them a wave of the hand or thumbs up,” Hales told the crowd.
But almost every week, those rules were broken, and Hales ended up kicking someone out. Often, it was guy named Joe Walsh. Walsh had a habit of yelling at Hales when he disagreed with something the council was doing. Hales would usually attempt to reason with Walsh, but occasionally ended up recessing the meeting and ordering Walsh out.
“I grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York,” said Walsh, a former U.S. Navy engineer and union shop steward. “So I’ve been a fighter all my life.”
Walsh’s voice is strained because of medication he’s on for emphysema and asbestosis. He carries a little silver oxygen tank on wheels with him.
Still, he’s been to almost every Portland City Council meeting over the past 10 years, usually wearing a homemade T-shirt that features pictures of the council members and a disapproving slogan.
He’s quick to point out that he isn’t kicked out of every meeting. Just lots of them. He also notes that he’s outlasted the last three Portland mayors — that’s Hales, Sam Adams and Tom Potter — each of whom served just one term.
“All I have to do is stand up, and the entire city council recesses,” Walsh said. “You talk about having power, that’s a lot of power.”
Walsh and Hales had a particularly explosive relationship. Walsh says it’s because Hales was a bad mayor. Hales has another theory: He thinks Walsh and other activists couldn’t stand him, at least in part, because he’s a silver-haired white guy in a suit — “The Man.”
“Maybe I look a little bit like corporate America,” Hales said, “even though I’m pretty far from corporate America in my philosophy.”
After Walsh made a practice of interrupting him, Mayor Hales ordered him excluded from the council’s hearings for a month, and then for two months.
Walsh responded by suing the city in federal court. He argued that that being excluded on the basis of his past behavior violated his constitutional right to free speech. He represented himself. His wife sat next to him at the defense attorney’s table because he didn’t have a lawyer.
“She sat down, and said, ‘What do I do?’” Walsh said. “And I said, ‘Just shuffle papers. That’s what second chairs do.’”
“Against two city attorneys who make over 100 grand a year,” he said. “And I kicked their butt.”
The federal judge ruled that the mayor can only exclude people from the meeting they are disrupting. The next week, the council has to let them back in again. With such limited consequences for disruptive behavior, council meetings have taken on the feeling of an assembly at a rowdy middle school.
At a hearing in December, a man who gave his name as Kernel Moses signed up to testify about Portland’s homeless problem. Almost immediately, his testimony took on a darker tone. He yelled at Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who is Jewish, about a day last fall when protesters were kicked out of City Hall by the police.
“I’m coming after you Mr. Saltzman,” Moses said. “Where were you on Oct. 12, huh? Hiding out in your synagogue?”
Members of the council worry that the frequent disruptions, profanity and personal attacks will keep the public from wanting to participate in local government.
“It wasn’t civil,” said Don MacOdrum, who runs the Home Performance Guild of Oregon.
He attended his first Portland City Council meeting in December to testify about home energy ratings. MacOdrum says some of the things he heard, including those comments about Commissioner Saltzman’s religion, made him deeply uncomfortable.
“I don’t know that it was overt,” he said. “But there was just a violent quality to it.”
MacOdrum says while he was disturbed, it won’t keep him from speaking up at city council. He thinks the only way the situation will improve is if more ordinary people attend council meetings and testify.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz worked as a psychiatric nurse before she was elected to office.
“Some of the stuff that’s been happening in council chambers just would not be tolerated inside a psychiatric hospital,” she said.
But Fritz is optimistic that with a new administration taking office this week, things will quiet down a little.
“You hope there’s a honeymoon at least for Mayor Wheeler, so he doesn’t have to start dealing with it immediately,” she said.
For his part, Walsh, the activist who’s outlasted all the mayors, says he’s willing to give Mayor Wheeler a grace period. Maybe six months.