In the wake of a community meeting Thursday in which one man nearly hit another during a verbal dispute, the City of Palo Alto is considering rules for public behavior.
Assistant City Attorney Don Larkin confirmed that guidelines for public participation at meetings could debut within a month and that the City Manager's office has been actively developing the rules.
"We were working on it before last night. But that (meeting) drove home the point that we should have guidelines for people leading the meetings," Larkin said Friday.
"We can regulate disruptive behavior. If people are getting up in the meeting and shouting, we can ask those people to leave," he added.
"It's a little more difficult to control a workshop like (Thursday's) because we are trying to encourage people to dialogue" at it, Larkin said.
In addition to the new rules, the city's interim planning director, Curtis Williams, said he will be "front and center" at future community gatherings on land-use and may facilitate them to ensure that they run smoothly.
The focus of Thursday's meeting was the redevelopment of the California Avenue and Fry's Electronics area and was intended by the city as a forum to gain public input. But during the gathering at Lucie Stern Community Center, attendees shouted at one another and at the meeting facilitator, and afterwards, one man threw a punch, stopping inches from the other man's face.
One of the men involved in the altercation, former library commissioner Sanford Forte, ended up calling the police and has said that he intends to press charges against the other man, resident Gary Holl.
The feuding began when Holl's wife, Victoria, stood up and began addressing consultant and meeting facilitator David Early in a loud voice.
Victoria Holl asked Early, founder of Berkeley-based Design, Community & Environment, how far into the development-plan process the city has already gone. Early did not directly respond to her question, and Holl shouted: "Answer the question."
Holl said she felt Early had a bias toward dense housing and that he was leading the discussion in a direction that did not seem neutral.
Early objected to the tenor of her questioning, saying at one point that he would not allow a small group of people to hijack the process.
"Excuse me. I'm a resident of the city. I pay taxes. I pay your paycheck," Holl said.
During the exchange, Forte turned around in his chair, partially standing, and said to Holl: "Show some respect."
Forte interrupted Holl several more times as she continued to insist Early answer her, and Holl made an obscene hand gesture at Forte, which Early chastised her for.
"After three interruptions, I felt the gesture was appropriate, as you were not getting control of your meeting," she said.
Other attendees, bothered by Forte's interjections, yelled at him to be quiet.
"I don't like how she's talk--" Forte started to say, when Barron Park resident Doug Moran finally shouted in Forte's face. "Sanford, shut up!"
Early then said that he and the city had not engaged in any planning before the meeting, and he moved the discussion on to other, less controversial topics, such as the need to create open space.
"Only once in my 20-year career have we ever had an outburst like we did tonight," he said at the end of the meeting. He apologized "for the tone this meeting has taken."
Holl said she was shaken by the exchange and had felt attacked by Forte.
Ronna Devincenzi, president of the California Avenue Area Development Association, said she thought Holl had a valid question. She added that emotions were running high because many residents do not trust the city. One topic that resurfaced was that many felt the city has favored developers, to the detriment of schools, traffic and parking.
But while the meeting had ended, the argument between the Holls and Forte continued. How it transpired is a matter of differing opinion between the two parties.
They agree that Forte and Devincenzi stood talking on the sidewalk in front of the Lucie Stern Community Center after the meeting.
Gary Holl said in an e-mail on Friday that Forte was in the middle of the walkway.
"I made a comment to Sanford that he was rude and should have let Victoria finish framing her question to the facilitator. He insisted he was right and kept talking while I was trying to talk calmly to him. He escalated his voice, and he said he was a black belt, so I told him that was a threat and he should throw the first punch. The facilitator then came out of the community center and volunteered to escort us to the parking lot," Holl wrote.
Forte and other witnesses said the Holls approached Forte and told him they had heard he was a "well-known (expletive)."
Witnesses saw Gary Holl move close to Forte's face, yelling expletives, while the diminutive Devincenzi called for the men to stop and attempted to get between them to diffuse the argument.
Holl was seen throwing a punch at Forte, stopping only an inch from his face, and was heard taunting Forte, according to witnesses.
At that point, Early's staff interceded, asking if they should call the police. Forte said they should. Early then accompanied the Holls as they left.
"No one should come out of a public meeting and be threatened by anyone. ... This breaches all limits," Forte said as he dialed the Palo Alto police.
Forte said Friday that he only stated he was a black belt as a warning after Holl had threatened him.
Forte said he has attended too many meetings at which people have engaged in personal attacks against others with whom they disagree. A former library commissioner, Forte cited personal criticisms of former library director Paula Simpson as an example of how some in the community have let their differences get out of control.
"Comments directed to city staff and consultants should not imply that the person who is there to deliver information should be personally attacked," he said.
Forte said he felt that was happening to Early and that he wanted to bring a tone of civility to the meeting.
"In all fairness, I could've waited until Victoria finished her attack and then I could've raised my hand and (asked for people to show some respect)," he conceded.
Forte said he hopes the city will develop rules that will stop abusive verbal exchanges at public meetings.
Assistant City Attorney Larkin said that the city, in addition to the guidelines, was also considering training staff members in how to "decompress tense situations."
"We're certainly not going to have cops at every meeting," he said. But "we should have people trained at every meeting" that is likely to be controversial.
The second public workshop on the California Avenue concept plan is tentatively scheduled for March 26, from 7 to 9 p.m., at the Lucie Stern Community Center.