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News Maryland Sun Investigates

Arundel council chair has broad authority to limit discussion

As officers threatened to arrest her last week, Karen Delimater stood in the faces of two Anne Arundel County police corporals and demanded to see what law gave them authority to toss her out of a County Council meeting.
 
At the time, the officers offered her the explanation that she’d been asked to leave and was therefore trespassing. But they didn’t address what gave the council’s chairman authority to toss her out in the first place or to limit her comments to two minutes instead of three.
 
According to the laws governing Anne Arundel Council meetings, the chairman appears to have unlimited discretion on how long to let people speak and what constitutes disorderly conduct in a meeting.
 
Minutes before her confrontation with officers, Delimater was inside the council chambers complaining about once-a-week trash pickup, a rat infestation and traffic problems in Pasadena for two and half minutes. Council Chairman Derek Fink, who had announced the public had two minutes to speak, asked her to summarize.

But Delimater announced that according an email from a council employee, she was entitled to three minutes and would finish her comments. When she refused to take her seat, Fink summoned two police officers at the meeting to clear the chambers. The officers would not allow Delimater back into the room.
 
Delimater  decided to leave the building rather than face arrest.  In an email later, she complained to council members and the media that police were being used “bar the entrance of citizens to the room which belongs to the CITIZENS.”

County laws give Fink broad authority to run council meetings and to decide how to do it.
 
Anne Arundel lawmakers adopted an appendix to the County Code that spells out how the chairman’s authority works. In one section, it says “each member of the public who speaks to the County Council shall be limited to the amount of time specified by the chair.”  In this case, it was the 2 minutes announced by Fink before the first person got up to speak.

Another section of the rules says the chairman “shall preserve order and decorum during each meeting or session of the County Council.” It grants the chairman supervision of the chambers and the halls adjacent to it.  “In case of a disturbance or disorderly conduct in the County Council chambers,” it reads, “the presiding officer may order any such place to be cleared.”
 
The rules, though, don’t say what constitutes order.  That’s left to the discretion of the chairman, County Council Legislative Counsel Amy Tate said.
 
This week was not the first time the Delimater and Fink had sparred over how “free” Delimater’s speech could be within the council chambers. In December, Delimater tried to express opinions about then-Councilman Daryl Jones, who was about to serve a five-month prison term for failing to file a tax return. Fink banged his gavel and told Delimater the council chambers was “not the right place” for that discussion. That time, Delimater chose to take her seat.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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