TAKOMA PARK — A Takoma Park resident claims that his civil rights were violated on the evening of Wednesday, July 25 during the City Council’s weekly meeting.
Byrne Kelly, 63, says three Takoma Park city employees violated his civil rights when they did not allow him to set up a table in the atrium of the Sam Abbott Citizens’ Center, where the Takoma Park City Council regularly holds its weekly meetings.
Kelly, a Ward 3 resident since 1983, alleges that while collecting signatures for a petition to recall the mayor and five of the council members over their positions on the Takoma Junction redevelopment site plan, City Manager Suzanne Ludlow, Community Development Coordinator Sara Anne Daines and Community Development Manager Rosalind Grigsby confronted him over having a table in what he called “harassment” and a “violation of civil rights.”
“The city manager and city planners interfered with my freedom of assembly and my freedom to petition,” Kelly said. “The whole thing didn’t seem very Takoma Park and it raises questions as to who’s really running this city.”
Describing the incident, Kelly says Ludlow informed him that he would not be able to set up a table in front of the atrium due to fire hazards and an anticipated large crowd for that evening’s meeting, which included the Council’s vote on the Takoma Junction proposed site plan.
After being told he was not allowed to have a table in the atrium due to a portion being sectioned off due to a roof leak, Kelly says he brought his own table and set it up at the back of the auditorium, where the Council meeting took place.
Shortly after, Kelly alleges Grigsby confronted him and told him that the table had to be set up on the back side of the atrium, where Kelly says he was “invisible to residents” and collecting fewer signatures.
Setting up a table at the back of the atrium, where he was instructed, Kelly says he saw several other people sitting on chairs near the front of the atrium, where he was previously told he could not have a table and decided to relocate his table to the front.
That’s when, Kelly says, he was confronted by both Grigsby and Daines while being surrounded by several Takoma Park Police officers, telling him he could not have a table at the front of the atrium with Kelly responding “you’re not the boss of me.”
Kelly then walked inside the auditorium and interrupted the public comment period in front of the City Council to verbally complain on Grigsby and Daines before being escorted out of the room by a police officer.
Following the interruption, Mayor Kate Stewart stepped out of the auditorium during public comments to defuse the situation and allowed Kelly to have a table at the front of the auditorium, away from the roof leak.
“I had no interest in any kind of disturbance … [and] was not in any position to get arrested,” Kelly said. “I was there to get signatures.”
The next morning, Kelly said he woke up a “nervous wreck” adding he suffered possible post-traumatic stress disorder.
Thanking the Mayor for defusing the situation, Kelly said he plans to seek assistance from the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union to submit a formal complaint against Ludlow, Grigsby, and Daines as well as the Takoma Park Police Department.
“I thank the mayor for preventing me from being arrested,” Kelly added.
In response to Kelly’s allegations, City Manager Suzanne Ludlow wrote the following via email:
“The City of Takoma Park actively encourages and embraces First Amendment activities. Of course there are reasonable limits to these activities, primarily regarding safe passage of the public in buildings and on sidewalks.
“The City Council meeting of July 25 was expected to – and did – attract a very large crowd. In order to ensure safe passage of the public, tables and other obstructions were not to be placed in the area of the Atrium closest to the building’s front doors or in other routes to exits. The building’s public areas were even more constrained than usual on that evening due to a water leak that required part of the Atrium to be blocked off.
“Before the meeting, I had asked City staff and police officers to help keep the paths to the exits clear and not allow tables or other obstructions to be in the way. We also made special accommodations for media outlets to allow them to broadcast while not blocking pathways.
“During the meeting itself, there was quite a bit of confusion in addition to having a large crowd – there was an officer-involved shooting that occurred nearby, there was a silent alarm button in the auditorium that was accidentally pushed, and there were problems with the microphone system. I regret that with all of this occurring, the message of our fire safety concerns may not have been adequately communicated to Mr. Kelly.”