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Coral Gables rules create ruckus

The City Commission warns it will ban people from its meetings who are "impertinent."

The well-to-do city of Coral Gables, where even the hue of house paint must be approved by the city, has always been a place of rules. Roxcy Bolton, 74, believes in rules, mostly.

Sometimes, she has found, the rules just seem silly.

In the later 1970s, when she violated a Coral Gables ordinance that banned the parking of pickups in front of houses, the city sent a tow truck, and Bolton confronted the driver with her mixed-breed pet, Momma Dog.

"All hell broke loose," Bolton said.

Now, in reaction to a series of meetings in which some residents have spoken loudly and at times rudely to the Coral Gables City Commission, the commission has warned it will ban from its meetings those who are "boisterous" or "impertinent."

The rule just makes Bolton, and a lot of people, angry.

"That's no way to treat a 74-year-old woman," said Bolton, who is one of many people in this city just south and west of Miami who say elected officials are trying to stifle their opinions.

In a recent advisory to citizens, the commission laid out its rules of decorum for future meetings:

"Any person making impertinent or slanderous remarks or who becomes boisterous while addressing the commission shall be barred from further audience. Clapping, applauding, heckling or verbal outbursts or any remarks in support of or opposition to a speaker shall be prohibited."

Signs and placards, the advisory states, will not be permitted in the commission chambers.

Violators not only could be ejected, but could be barred from future meetings. Under the rules, a majority of the commission must vote to allow them back in the chamber.

In effect, it gives the commission the power to refuse admittance to anyone it considers offensive, said some residents.

It is, said some Gables residents and experts on the First Amendment, an attempt by the commission to intimidate citizens, and a violation of their constitutional rights. Bolton said she would never be insulting, but will not be silenced, either.

"I'm not going to let anyone get in the way of what I have to say," said Bolton, a community activist who has lived here for 50 years.

Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli said the rules of decorum are intended to ensure that meetings are free of shouts, insults and violence.

"It doesn't apply to my agreeing or not agreeing with what they are saying," the mayor said. "It applies to demeanor." No one would be barred from the chambers because of what they said, he said, unless it was insulting.

Coral Gables, which residents refer to as the Gables, is a city of banyan-shaded mansions and upper-middle-class homes, where a two-bedroom, one-bath house can sell for $300,000. There is neither peeling paint nor dead trees along the manicured lawns, and many people in South Florida consider this community to be a well-ordered oasis within Miami-Dade County.

The houses, almost all with tile roofs, are in muted colors _ cream, light pink and a mild, subdued mustard _ and pickups and work vans must be hidden inside garages. Air-conditioning units are screened by banana trees and small palms.

Usually, commission meetings are calm and orderly. But in recent months, the chamber has been disrupted by heated arguments between commission members and citizens over a plan to convert a busy street into a pedestrian plaza.

Clashes became common. In one impassioned address by Bolton before the commission a few months ago, "the mayor said, "I'm going to have you arrested and taken out of here,' " Bolton said. "I said, "Go for it,' and continued to speak."

Louder, tenser confrontations led to the recent advisory, and an even greater uproar.

"It's clearly there as a threat," said Vincent Damian, who has lived in Coral Gables since 1964. "It can encompass anything that they disagree with."

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the rules "muzzle anyone" at the meetings.

"It's a silly effort to make commission meetings a First Amendment-free zone," he said. "It prohibits things like clapping, things that are clearly not disruptive of a commission meeting. It goes too far."

Bolton said the language in the advisory is intimidating, especially to older residents who would not want to suffer the indignity of being led from the chamber or of losing their voice in the governmental process.

"That is the real threat," she said.

Many residents just do not understand how government could be carried out without a certain amount of confrontation.

"There is booing even in the House of Commons in Great Britain," said Eileen Smith, a teacher who has lived in Coral Gables for 10 years. "That is the democratic process."