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Birmingham settles First Amendment complaint

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published October 14, 2019

BIRMINGHAM — When it comes to politics at the lectern during the public comment portion of City Commission meetings, Birmingham has to let residents have their say, even if it could be considered political advocacy.

And the city can’t turn off the cameras during that advocacy, either.

Judge Victoria Roberts, of the U.S. Eastern District Court, signed a stipulation for dismissal order Oct. 1 in the lawsuit filed by residents Clinton Baller and David Bloom against the city, City Attorney Tim Currier and Mayor Patty Bordman. The order, which essentially acts as a settlement, was entered with prejudice and without costs. The case is now considered resolved.

Baller and Bloom filed the complaint July 22, stating that their right to free speech had been violated during the public comment portion of the City Commission’s July 8 meeting, when both attempted to express their dissent on a $54.7 million bond to fund the redevelopment of the North Old Woodward parking structure.

Baller and Bloom said they attempted to “raise new findings and concerns relating to the N.O.W. project” during the public comment portion of the meeting but were stopped by Bordman and Currier.

“Immediately following his midsentence reference to the ‘new parking deck on Old Woodward,’ at only 25 seconds into his speaking time, Plaintiff Bloom was then interrupted by Defendant Bordman exclaiming, ‘All right. You have to stop,’” the complaint reads.

As part of the agreement, the city will allow residents to speak on political issues during citizen participation portions of commission meetings and will not stop cable broadcasts of the meetings if a speaker decides to do so.

The rules already in place for citizen participation sections of meetings — for instance, time limits — can still be imposed as part of the commission’s rules of procedure. The city can potentially withdraw from participation in the Birmingham Area Cable Board or discontinue broadcasting City Commission meetings on the government access channel altogether.

Baller, who is currently running for a seat on the Birmingham City Commission, considers the agreement a win for his camp.

“We got exactly what we were after,” Baller said in an email. “But residents of Birmingham, while now protected, deserve to know why our mayor and city attorney apparently conspired to shut us down and why they felt it necessary to defend their position, in vain, for more than two months.”

Bordman, who is running for reelection to the commission, declined to discuss the stipulation order. Currier did not respond to requests for comment before press time.

On behalf of the city, Communications Director Kevin Byrnes released a statement outlining the new citizen participation guidelines.

“Accordingly, the order entered by the court will allow the City Commission and the public to go forward with a clear understanding of what is permitted during the public comment portion of City Commission meetings,” the statement reads. “Until recently, the city of Birmingham has not had issues with public comment at (a) City Commission meeting in decades, and (the city) anticipates there will be no issues with public comment in the future.”