Putnam: Say what? 9-year-old muzzled at Lansing council meeting

LANSING, MICH. - The Lansing City Council Monday dished up the wrong kind of civics lesson to a fourth-grader.

Charli Collison, 9, tagged along with her mother, Kelly Collison, to a Monday council meeting to protest the construction of a new Groesbeck Golf Course entrance through Ormond Park. A judge halted the construction after a lawsuit was filed.

When Council President Patricia Spitzley asked if anyone else wanted to speak at the end of the public comment portion of the committee-of-the-whole meeting, five hands went up. Spitzley allowed the four adults to talk but said “No” to Charli.

“I have strong feelings about the role of children and what their role should be. I don’t believe that 9-year-old children should be giving public comment. I just don’t,” Spitzley said in a phone interview Wednesday.

At the meeting on Monday, Charli started to cry after being told she couldn't share her views on the park with council members.

“I cried because I was sad I couldn’t talk about the reasons I had for Ormond Park to be saved,” Charli told me in a phone interview.

She said her father, who now lives in East Lansing, used to live near Ormond Park and she played there frequently. A small rock-climbing wall that's been knocked down for construction was a highlight. She'll be a fourth-grade student at Glencairn School in East Lansing in the fall.

“I wanted to tell them that kids should have a chance to come to Ormond Park and climb on the rock wall and play on the structures,” she said.

Kelly Collison, who lives in Lansing, said she brought her daughter with her to the meeting to speak against the park changes. She said it was Charli’s idea to address the council. Collison said she was shaken when her daughter was denied that chance.

“I thought that it sent a message to young people that their voice doesn’t matter,” Collison said. Plus, she points out, who knows a park better than kids who play there?

Collison used a portion of her own time at the microphone to read Charli’s hand-written remarks. She said two council members, Kathie Dunbar and Carol Wood, have apologized to Charli.

Spitzley said the child called Mayor Virg Bernero a “park killer” in remarks read for Charli by her mother.

“The child’s comment referred to the mayor as a park killer. That just validated it wasn’t a meaningful, thoughtful comment. It was more done for effect,” she said.

Collison said the remarks say: “Stop the park killers.” But Bernero did get a reference: "Angry mayors should not be able to destroy parks that other kids play at."

When another speaker raised a question about allowing Charli to speak, Spitzley said she asked City Attorney Jim Smiertka about the state Open Meetings Act.

She said he told her the law was silent on whether a child is covered under the law.

Herschel Fink, an attorney who represents the Lansing State Journal, said the law is clear: A person is allowed to address a public body. A 9-year-old is a person.

“Being silent on age means there is no requirement of age. That’s a totally preposterous claim,” he said.

The council does, as allowed by law, set limits on time and prohibits disruptive speech or behavior. But there’s nothing in the rules about age.

Smiertka, in an email, said he was researching it after the meeting and reached the conclusion that the term person "is broadly used in the statute in such a way that age does not appear to be a limiting condition."

Fink was far more direct: “The simple answer is ‘Yeah, it’s a violation of the Open Meetings Act, plain and simple.'”

Spitzley said she goes out of her way to make sure everyone is treated respectfully and gets to speak.

But clearly it would be wrong to stop someone from speaking based on other factors such as skin color, weight or gender. Age should be treated no differently.

3rd Ward Council member Adam Hussain teaches eighth-grade social studies. He gives Spitzley high marks for running the meetings in an orderly way, but said she may have to rethink her decision about Charli’s right to speak.

“We need to be careful when we are encouraging our young people, more now than probably ever, to get people civically engaged,” he said. “We have to be careful with the message that we’re sending.”

The council, through its president, sent the wrong message and likely broke the law at the same time. 


A fourth-grader wasn't allowed to speak during public comments at Lansing City Council's Committee of the Whole July 10, 2017. Council President Patricia Spitzley denied her request. Part of the conversation is inaudible. (Video courtesy of the City of Lansing)

Judy Putnam is a columnist with the Lansing State Journal. Contact her at (517) 267-1304 or at jputnam@lsj.com.

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© 2017 Lansing State Journal


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