HUGO — After receiving hundreds of phone calls and many emails from all over the country, the City Council has taken a step “to be proactive” should another protest come to a Hugo neighborhood.
The City Council unanimously voted to adopt a residential picketing ordinance at its Sept. 8 meeting. City Administrator Bryan Bear shared a PowerPoint presentation to offer background on what has occurred up to this point, what steps city officials and the Washington County Sheriff’s Department have taken and what the ordinance means for residents and protestors who may plan to visit the city.
The ordinance is in response to the Black Lives Matter protest that came to town Aug. 15 outside of the home of Minneapolis Police Federation President Bob Kroll, in addition to the “Unity Rally” Aug. 22 at Lions Park. Even though event organizers officially canceled the Aug. 22 rally, a group of about 100 people still gathered at the park. Bear said the group then headed to Kroll’s neighborhood to drive by his home.
“Since these activities have occurred, the city and the sheriff’s department have been evaluating the response and we have been collecting a tremendous amount of feedback on how to make changes in how we respond to these types of events,” Bear said. “Protest activity is relatively new for us in the city of Hugo, and so it is safe to say that we are learning as we go.”
In addition to the phone call and email feedback, city staff, council members, sheriff’s department staff and county attorney staff canvassed the neighborhood affected by the protest to gather input.
“We got a tremendous amount of feedback from residents. They were very open and very eager to share their thoughts,” Bear recalled. “From my own perspective, what I can say is that the feedback was very diverse. We heard a wide range of opinions from residents and it was very emotional. There is a lot of emotion from residents after experiencing protests, everything from fear, to anger, and many other emotions as well.”
Common concerns included traffic and parking, safety, noise and maintaining the right to assemble.
The new ordinance regulates targeted picketing in residential neighborhoods within the city. The ordinance reads in part, “the City Council finds that targeted residential picketing in front of or about a residential dwelling causes emotional distress to the dwelling occupants, obstructs and interferes with the free use of public rights of way and has as its object the harassment of the dwelling occupants … Without resorting to targeted residential picketing, ample opportunities exist for those otherwise engaged in targeted residential picketing to exercise constitutionally protected freedom of speech and expression.”
Council Member Phil Klein said he was in favor of the ordinance. “I know it is important that we must maintain the ability for people to have free speech and to have their right to assemble. That’s what our men and women have fought and died for and that’s what we need to protect,” he said. “People (also) have the right to have tranquility and not be captive in their homes and be held hostage by unwanted guests … This resolution helps encompass what we are trying to achieve and that is getting some tranquility back to our residents and get a feeling of safety; they can feel safe in their homes, can leave and access their property whenever they want to.”
Council Member Mike Miron asked whether this would protect the residential neighborhood that surrounds Lions Park. City Attorney David Snyder explained, “The ordinance is narrowly tailored to prohibit targeted residential picketing, by which it means targeting a particular residential structure, so a gathering at a public park in the downtown area would not be violative of the ordinance. If somehow, the intention of the protest was turned or focused to a particular dwelling unit within that area, then it would be subject to the provisions of the ordinance.”
Mayor Tom Weidt wanted to know what would have happened if this ordinance was in effect on Aug. 15 or Aug. 22. Bear explained the main benefit of the ordinance will be the proactive messaging with protest organizers.
“We have learned that most of these protests are not spontaneous. Our thought is that by communicating these types of restrictions in advance of the protest, it may cause them to abide by those restrictions or go to a location where this type of activity may be permitted or not do them all together,” Bear explained. “It does set the ground rules in advance and it would have to cause an organization to intentionally attempt to violate a city ordinance.”
The ordinance will also provide the sheriff’s department with some options in terms of enforcement such as issuing citations or making arrests (in worst-case scenarios).
“This gives us the opportunity to keep it out of a neighborhood, which I think is good. People deserve to have a peaceful place to go to and a peaceful place to call their home without this happening in their neighborhood,” Weidt said. “I do want to make sure that residents know that this isn’t an ordinance that is going to block any activity whatsoever if it crops up again, but it does give us an opportunity to try to head it off with discussion and possibly another avenue to enforce misbehavior afterwards.”
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