Handling of public comment on Israeli ceasefire called ‘painful,’ ‘maddening,’ ‘unconstitutional’

After more than an hour of contentious public comment demanding a ceasefire resolution over Israel’s war in Gaza, Hartford city council members are facing criticism over the way it was conducted.

Over 140 people signed up to speak virtually at Tuesday night’s public comments ahead of the city council meeting. Pro-Palestine speakers, organized by the Hartford Jewish Organizing Collective and the CT Democratic Socialists of America, demanded Hartford leaders introduce a ceasefire resolution. Windsor and Bridgeport recently passed similar resolutions.

Nationally, more than 70 towns and cities, including Chicago, Detroit, Seattle and Atlanta have approved similar resolutions, while others have either voted no or refused to vote.

According to Hartford’s charter rules, public comments last one hour and are normally held in person. Each person may speak for up to three minutes and the speaking order is by when people sign up. Tuesday night’s public comments were held over Zoom due to the snowstorm.

But some residents say they were turned away from speaking even though they signed up in time to qualify. Others who didn’t have a chance to speak said that non-residents were prioritized over Hartford residents based on their position on the Israel-Gaza conflict.

“It was painful and upsetting to me, as one of the many Jewish Hartford residents who support a ceasefire, to see West Hartford Jewish residents repeatedly given priority to testify over those of us who actually live in the city,” said Hartford resident Sarah White in an email sent to council members. “Dozens of Hartford residents were not given the chance to speak, and many of these were fellow Hartford Jews who support a ceasefire.”

In addition, several people said they faced technical issues trying to speak over Zoom as some could not un-mute themselves and were then cut off from speaking. Others experienced lagging issues and some said they were repeatedly kicked out of the meeting due to connectivity issues, taking time away from speakers.

“This raises questions about accessibility,” Hartford resident Kerri Ana Provost said. “Council president scolded would-be speakers for not unmuting, or not doing so fast enough, even though they were not all given this capability. Members of the public and at least one councilperson made attempts to communicate with the council president that they were unable to unmute to speak. This would have been absurdist comedy if it were not so maddening.”

Councilman Josh Michtom of the Working Families Party, who said he will be introducing a ceasefire resolution, said he was concerned about the process and wants clarity on why some were allowed to speak and others were not. Michtom and his wife, Costanza Segovia, were both denied a chance to speak during public comments over technical issues because they couldn’t un-mute themselves.

“I had constituents reach out to me yesterday afternoon when they were told by council president’s staff that only three people would be allowed to speak in favor of a ceasefire resolution. I let council president know that a content-based limitation on public comment was unconstitutional, and I also reached out to corporation counsel, who agreed and said he’d talk with council president.”

“Rules for participation in public comment have to be content-neutral. That is a constitutional requirement: the government can’t give preference to certain speakers over others based on what they intend to say. If we say that speaking order is first come, first served, but then we modify that rule to give time to both sides, and people who signed up first get skipped and then don’t get to speak because time runs out, council has effectively censored them because of what they were going to say. This is not some far-fetched theory of mine — it’s well-established Supreme Court precedent,” Michtom said.

But Democratic Council President Shirley Surgeon said that she wanted to ensure fairness on both sides of the issue, striking a compromise between both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel speakers — residents or not. Surgeon, who called the war complex, said that it was impossible to have everyone speak in the time allotted for public comments.

“It was about balance,” Surgeon said. “I tried to give Hartford residents the opportunity to speak as much as possible but also tried to be fair to both sides. Michtom’s complaint is about allowing organizations from outside of Hartford to speak over residents. But the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford had a lot of people signed up to speak as well. So the compromise was they gave me a few names to speak to ensure their side of the story was also told.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, which had three members speak, is headquartered in neighboring West Hartford.

Surgeon, who allowed an extra 30 minutes at the end of the meeting to make up for technical issues, said that the city’s Zoom subscription only allows for up to about 100 people in a meeting. Because of the number of people who signed up last minute, Surgeon said she wasn’t able change the subscription or call up the platform and ask for more bandwidth.

“Public comments are always held in person, but because of the snow we decided to go for a Zoom meeting. Because of the limits of our Zoom subscription, it was not able to support that many people at once. There were a lot more people who signed up than what our Zoom contract has the capacity for. So that was a challenge and something that needs to be addressed.”

Surgeon said that she now plans on looking into the council getting a subscription package that allows for more bandwidth to accommodate future Zoom meetings where hundreds of speakers may be present. The councilwoman also said she has accepted an invitation from many of the pro-Palestine speakers to have a meeting and hear their concerns.

“I’m unwilling at this point to say I’m for a ceasefire resolution, because Hartford has no control over foreign policy,” Surgeon said. “But I will still meet with them because they called for a meeting. But we have so many other pressing issues we need to address. Less than a week ago we had two killings in Hartford. How do we solve those issues? I want to address the pressing issues Hartford has right now.”

Stephen Underwood can be reached at sunderwood@courant.com

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