Police officers were stationed at this week’s Village Council meeting to provide added security after more than one member of council expressed fears for their safety. Longtime residents said the sergeant-at-arms appeared to be a first for Key Biscayne.
Village Manager Steve Williamson said council members’ concerns arose after some disruptive comments coming from the audience during the July 27th council meeting. The Village started a social media campaign to advise residents that there would be a police presence in the meeting and that socially-distanced seating and a mask requirement would be in place.
At the July meeting, resident Louisa Conway’s time had expired and Mayor Mike Davey had asked her to stop speaking. Conway, an unsuccessful Village Council candidate last year, attempted to keep talking, saying that Davey was being rude and that the Council had just voted to allow Fausto Gomez, a former Village lobbyist, to go beyond the standard three-minute limit.
“This chamber belongs to the people,” she said, leaving the speaker’s podium. At that point, other residents started hectoring the council loudly, and some left their seats.
Later in the meeting Armando Chapelli, another unsuccessful council candidate, singled out Council Member Allison McCormick for criticism. “You don’t look me in the eye,” he said. “Go ahead, mock me.” He continued, saying his business had been affected by the “deep state,” and that the federal government was wrongly keeping people charged in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol “incommunicado.” He also mentioned Council Member Frank Caplan in his remarks. McCormick did not return a call, but appeared shaken after the meeting.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the Key Biscayne police officer stood against a wall inside the chamber, visible to members of the public, but far from the speaker’s podium. Williamson said he monitored the chamber for compliance with the rules and some of the officers were released later in the session.
The Village has been struggling to manage the technical challenges posed by COVID-19 safety rules and electronic participation in meetings. In the July session, some residents were frustrated that they could not hear the comments of Council Members attending by Zoom, as the loudspeakers in the chamber were silenced to prevent audio feedback. This Tuesday, the Village handed out pocket wireless audio receivers and headsets so that the public could hear all speakers. Village officials are working to implement a more robust interactive system for future meetings.
It’s increasingly common for municipalities to have officers in chambers during meetings, and some government buildings have magnetometers and X-ray machines, such as the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County. Even tiny North Bay Village sweeps meeting attendees with metal-detecting wands. But the presence of assigned security in Key Biscayne is a first, said Michelle Estevez, who sat on the council as vice mayor in 1996 and often attends meetings.
“It’s sad we’ve reached that time in Key Biscayne,” she said. She pointed out there is no easy way for people to leave the dais in the small chamber. “We have to protect each other.”
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.