La Center council OKs, reconsiders, scraps new law

Anyone starved of suspenseful plot twists Wednesday night could have found them at (where else?) the La Center City Council meeting.

The council officially approved a resolution banning expressions of speech on city infrastructure. Then it officially reconsidered. Then it finally (but again, officially) rejected the resolution.

A group of city residents has, for more than a decade, placed yellow ribbons on the railings of a bridge over the East Fork Lewis River on La Center Road. The tradition honors soldiers missing in action.

But recently, the same group tied blue ribbons around the railings to honor police, according to a staff report from City Attorney Bronson Potter. Mayor Greg Thornton said that residents reached out to him with concerns about the new ribbons. 

In 41 written comments ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, all but three commenters opposed the resolution. The comments primarily cited support for troops and police.

But some city officials have expressed concern that, if the issue is not addressed, the city would not be able to remove any type of speech from city infrastructure, even if it’s unrelated to troops or police and regardless of how offensive it might be to most residents. Thornton and councilmembers also discussed some nuances, including whether the resolution would prohibit the city itself from placing American flags on the bridge.

“This evening’s action is not really to talk about the color of the ribbons that are on the bridge or the causes that those ribbons represent,” Thornton said. “It’s really to talk about the expression of speech and the regulation of that speech.” 

Potter, without taking a position on the policy decision, wrote in the report that the resolution would have been legal. Citing case law, Potter wrote that a local government can’t regulate speech based on content or viewpoint. But it can close city infrastructure as a forum of speech. 

In a roll call vote, City Councilmembers Liz Cerveny and Doug Boff voted in favor of the resolution. Councilmembers Randy Williams and Jon Stimmel voted against. 

Cue the zigzags.

Councilmember Tom Strobehn had previously warned that he was inside a vehicle during the meeting, which took place virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions, and might lose connection. Strobehn advised the council to continue with the meeting if he lost contact. 

When Strobehn’s turn to cast his vote came, his earlier concern had been realized. To break the 2-2 tie, Thornton voted in favor of the resolution. 

But shortly after, Strobehn was able to reconnect. 

Following some consternation, Potter advised the council that it could entertain a motion to reconsider the previous motion. The council did so, and approved the motion to reconsider unanimously.

Strobehn, in place of Thornton, voted against the resolution, which caused it to fail 3-2. 

“That was unusual,” Thornton said. 

Jack Heffernan

Jack Heffernan

Jack Heffernan is a breaking news reporter and covers Clark County government for The Columbian.

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