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Silenced–public speaker barred from City Hall
By Stuart R. Wahlin
During the July 19 Rockford City Council meeting, one familiar face was absent—by order of Mayor Larry Morrissey (I).
Jim Buckingham, 48, is a retired professional soccer player and proud Army veteran—with a son now serving in Afghanistan—who often addresses members of the council regarding city business, particularly in support of police and fire personnel after being rescued from a fire in January 2009.
But after delivering sharp criticisms of the mayor during the July 12 meeting, Buckingham has found himself barred from City Hall for one year, allegedly because the mayor felt threatened by what Buckingham had to say
The following is a transcript of Buckingham’s July 12 remarks in their entirety:
“Fasten your seatbelts, folks. As a young boy, I was constantly being told I was slow, dumb and stupid—that I wouldn’t ever become much. Unfortunately, this is far too often the case for people growing up with ADD. After many years of studies, the facts are quite clear: ADD recipients are considerably more intelligent and observant than the average bear. I have often mentioned that I have this gift, or, to some, a curse, to [those] who are unable to embrace it. I have, for much longer than 16 months of my involvement with the city proceedings, been quite clear, honest, sincere and transparent about who I am and my position in the community I reside. Some might even say, perhaps, to a fault, but I know who I am, and believe my position is abundantly clear. I am a fierce warrior and defender of this great nation’s way of life. I am also the voice of the powerful silent majority—a sleeping giant, if you will. I loathe liars, deception, greed and smokescreens, unless, of course, I’m on the battlefield, as these are tools that are common, encouraged and perfected. I was taught—and by the very best, I might add—about war tactics and the identifying of the different types of smokescreens, and how to use them to my advantage. With that said, I will tell you my favorite quote is this: ‘Your actions speak so loud I can’t hear what you’re saying.’ So, here are just a few observations I have noted in your mayor’s big top. On several occasions, I have witnessed this mayor use what I would call strong-arm tactics in dealing with some of our aldermen. I consistently hear the word ‘transparency’ from this mayor, but I also noticed that he manipulates and controls it as he sees fit. Oh, yes, the mayor’s been a bad boy with the city funds. From the dollar figures I hear of, eye contact, facial expressions, body language and dancing being done in here, I’m shocked there aren’t more skirts being worn in here. Nevertheless, I am thoroughly convinced there’s plenty of money to protect the citizens of Rockford with the safety they are comfortable with, and not what this mayor is comfortable with. I’ve been witness to this mayor’s shell game for some time now. I’m just not sure what shell, if any, the money is hidden. I would be amazed if this mayor had less than $12-$15 million socked away for what he alone considers a rainy day. I challenge anyone to prove me wrong. These dollars are not for the mayor to treat as his own personal piggy bank. On a number of occasions, I warned the mayor not to mess with our personal safety. He often makes the police and fire chiefs face and dance to his music to appear as they embrace his irresponsible views. I’m sorry for the way he has misused you folks, but I do commend you both for being professionals with your attitudes. In 1980, I took an oath to protect this land from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Larry Morrissey, I told you before I don’t like soggy Cheerios, and you are hereby given notice that you are on my domestic enemy list. This is not the last you will hear or see of me, especially if you intend to run again. And now, I must wash my hands of you. That, my fellow citizens, is how you deal with bullies.”
No criminal charges warranted, city lawyers embrace trespassing law
The Rock River Times received a tip July 18 that the mayor had sought criminal charges against Buckingham for his comments. State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato (D) confirmed he’d been contacted by Hayes July 13. Hayes asked Bruscato to review a tape of Buckingham’s statement. After having reviewed Buckingham’s remarks, he said, the comments did not warrant criminal charges, however.
Instead, Buckingham was told by city officials he was barred from attending council meetings.
Reached by phone the afternoon of July 19 to comment regarding the situation, Legal Director Patrick Hayes responded: “I’m gonna have to figure out what we might be saying publicly about that. I can talk to you tonight about it.”
In the moments before the council meeting began, this reporter witnessed Rockford Police Sgt. Doug Pann deliver Hayes proof of service that Buckingham had received a “Notice of Trespass.”
“Served,” Pann told Hayes, who then thanked the sergeant.
The notice from Hayes informed Buckingham, “Based on your threatening comments directed toward Mayor Lawrence J. Morrissey on July 12, 2010, wherein you declared the Mayor to be on your ‘domestic enemy list,’ you are hereby notified that you are forbidden from entering City Hall…on or before July 11, 2011.”
Hayes added that any violation could result in a Class B misdemeanor for criminal trespass under state law. While barred from the property during the coming year, Buckingham was advised to contact Hayes regarding any city business that would require him to visit City Hall.
Mayor felt threatened
During the meeting that night, with full knowledge this press organization planned to run the story, the issue was instead made public by the mayor.
“It’s not a friendly environment, oftentimes, when you’re talking about cutting staff, when you’re talking about cutting service levels. And that’s why…I think it’s absolutely vital that we set the bar, set the standard, for how to engage in public discourse on these issues,” Morrissey told council members. “What I saw demonstrated here, however, last week from one of our public speakers crossed the line and is not protected public free speech. Mr. Buckingham, who addressed the council, who was threatening to me and to my family—I’ll tell you how difficult it is to have a conversation with your wife and your children, discussing what they should do should they see someone approaching them who doesn’t look like they have well intentions.
“I don’t know exactly what Mr. Buckingham was getting at when he identified me as being on his list of domestic enemies, but when someone who is retired military, trained in the business of killing people, comes into this chamber and threatens to put me, or has already put me, on this domestic enemies list, I take that as a very serious charge intended, at a minimum, to chill public discourse and the public’s business,” he added. “I’m not gonna sit here and let this chamber be defiled by that type of conduct.”
But Morrissey did sit and let it happen for the nearly 4-minute duration of Buckingham’s comments the week prior, even saying “Thank you” to the speaker at the conclusion of his statement. Public participants are asked to keep their comments to 3 minutes or less, but at no time did the mayor interrupt Buckingham to advise that his remarks were out of line, or that he’d exceeded the allotted time.
Buckingham snubbed by mayor’s office the week before?
Asked by this publication whether the ban was solely the result of Buckingham’s comments the week prior, or if there was more to the story, Morrissey explained that Buckingham had visited the mayor’s office prior to the July 12 episode, and that he’d allegedly threatened to go to Morrissey’s home. The mayor noted his wife is pregnant with another child due in November.
“I did feel threatened for my physical safety. I was looking over my shoulder, calling my wife, telling her to be careful,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going through his mind. All I could tell you is the words that he spoke, putting me on his domestic enemies list, referencing multiple times, like he always does, his military career and his oath that he swore to protect the country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And I’m a domestic enemy? In the age that we live in, I don’t think it’s any stretch at all to wonder: ‘What is this guy saying about me? Did he just threaten me?’ I think he did.”
Buckingham, however, said his visit to the eighth floor of City Hall was because the mayor had not responded to his request to meet with him to discuss public safety issues. He reported that staff simply told him the mayor was out of the office, but that he would be given the message. Buckingham reported he never heard back from the mayor, adding that he never said he was going to the mayor’s house.
Morrissey’s version is that, “When he was told that I was unavailable, and I wasn’t in the office at the time, he became very irate and threatened to come to my home that night.”
The mayor indicated he met with committee chairmen just before the council meeting to advance a resolution ratifying the mayor’s action of having barred Buckingham for one year. Meantime, council members will review the future of public comments during meetings.
“There is a state law (see breakout box regarding state law) that directly is on point that deals with threats against public officials,” Morrissey explained. “And the standard is, what would a reasonable person believe was the impact of the comment? And in my opinion, there’s no doubt in my mind that the comments last week from Mr. Buckingham were intended to be a threat.”
Meantime, Ald. Nancy Johnson (D-8) had introduced a measure June 21 that would limit public speakers from addressing the council more than five times per year. Johnson said July 19 she wanted to allow a “cool-down period” for her proposal until after Labor Day, but that is no longer the plan. Instead of voting immediately on Morrissey’s resolution regarding Buckingham, the Codes and Regulations Committee will now look at both measures to decide how public comments will be conducted from now on.
Morrissey indicated, “Mr. Hayes and our legal department will look at that and make sure we’re reflecting in our own local rules what the state law embodies in terms of protecting public discourse and protecting public officials, elected officials, from having to be afraid for their safety.”
The barring of Buckingham is not a first, noted Johnson, who said a constituent had been banned under the administration of former Mayor Charles Box (D) after allegedly bringing a baseball bat into the Public Works Department.
Even without ratification by aldermen, Morrissey told The Rock River Times, the notice of trespass is still enforceable, but that council support of the ban would be “helpful.” According to Hayes, the council’s Rule 23 gives the mayor authority to bar individuals from the building for alleged disruptive conduct.
“When I was questioned on the enforceability of such a ban, I suggested the resolution procedure,” Hayes indicated, leaving one to wonder whether Buckingham could challenge the mayor’s edict sans aldermanic support. When Ald. Linda McNeely (D-13) questioned the mayor as to why ratification by aldermen was necessary, he told her it would be appropriate to discuss that issue in committee.
“If he wants to challenge it, he could challenge the ruling, but I think we’re in very good standing, given the record that was created,” Morrissey said after the meeting.
McNeely, however, did not construe Buckingham’s comments to be threatening toward anyone. She asserted she would not support barring the frequent public speaker from airing grievances, concerns or opinions at City Hall.
“I’ve been here for several Mondays when Mr. Buckingham has provided us with his perspective of whatever issue,” McNeely said. “I, personally, did not feel that what he said last Monday was so threatening that we, as a council, should be addressing it and should be denying him the opportunity to come to this public place—which he pays tax dollars for—to address us, or even just to sit in and listen to us.”
She told the mayor, “I realize that, as a public servant, people are going to say things to you that you may not like, that may make you feel somewhat uncomfortable, but I don’t believe Mr. Buckingham has any intention of hurting you or your family.”
Following the meeting, Buckingham could be seen outside his apartment building just beyond City Hall property, with several police officers stationed in the parking lot, apparently poised to arrest him if he trespassed. After The Rock River Times approached Buckingham for an interview, the officers soon dispersed.
He said he first learned of the issue a day after making his comments. Buckingham indicated when he returned home July 13, he found a card had been left by a Rockford police detective. Upon calling the detective, Buckingham said he was advised, “You scared the hell out of the mayor.”
Although a tape of Buckingham’s July 12 remarks was the focus of review by police and the state’s attorney’s office, he said, “If the detectives and that would have saw all 10 of my [public addresses to the council] that I’ve done over here, they would have seen that it was quite literally in line with all the others.”
Buckingham called the suggestion of harming the mayor “ridiculous.”
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s a domestic enemy,” he acknowledged. “I don’t think I need to kill my enemies. Like I told him, I said I wash my hands of him. I want nothing to do with him.”
Responding to the fact Bruscato would not levy charges against him, but that he was barred anyway, Buckingham noted: “I either did something wrong over there, or I didn’t. And if I did, I should be in the jailhouse right now, instead of them trying to hee-haw and trying to run me off. So, obviously, I think it’s quite clear that I’ve become too big of a pain in his a–, and he thinks this is gonna help him control me and keep me at a distance, where it’s just gonna make it worse for him, because I have this whole town, except for inside that building…to let people know what a schmuck he is. And I’ve got nothing better to do than to do that.”
Asked what he planned to say to the council when the ban lifts in a year, Buckingham answered: “The same things. I’m not gonna change for him. If he thinks that’s the deal, then he hasn’t been listening to a word I’ve said over the last 16 months.
“So, I don’t know who’s stupider, him or me,” he joked.
Meantime, Buckingham said he’s planning to picket on the sidewalk outside of City Hall before the July 26 council meeting.
From the July 21-27, 2010 issue