Let it be known that clapping is not allowed at Amarillo City Council meetings. Just ask Kip Billups, who was arrested Tuesday at the request of Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson after applauding a speaker during open forum.
Ironically, the arrest was made in an attempt to create a “less intimidating” environment during city council meetings. “We are not going to clap,” Nelson said at the beginning of the meeting. “I want to make sure that we create an environment that’s not intimidating for folks … If that’s not something you can abide by that’s fine, you can leave now.”
Billups, along with other attendees, applauded in response to public comments made by resident Michael Greene, who expressed grievances with the city council’s conduct. Of those grievances, Greene noted city council’s repeated violations of the Open Meetings Act as well as Nelson’s “clapping ban” infringing on First Amendment rights. He closed by saying, “Just remember, the people are watching.”
Despite numerous attendees applauding Greene, Nelson asked Billups and another man to stand and state whether they would abide by the clapping rule or choose to leave. The other man walked out while Billups did not respond or stand. “By your silence, I see you are choosing to be escorted out,” said Nelson before two officers pulled him from his chair. In addition to being forced out of the public meeting, Billups was arrested and charged with Disrupting a Meeting. A local attorney is now representing him pro bono.
While the arrest has drawn sudden and wide-spread attention to the mayor and city council’s conduct, Tuesday’s event was a symptom of a larger ongoing issue.
On April 2, Nelson and the city council were sued by Amarillo residents Claudette Smith and Michael Fisher for alleged violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act. The lawsuit lists three separate violations: two instances where three or more city council members held a meeting without proper public notice and another where multiple residents were required to stop recording a city council meeting and prohibited from taking pictures.
“Everyone is so afraid to speak out in this town … they’re afraid of retribution,” said Fisher in an interview with Texas Scorecard.
While claiming to create a more conducive environment for open and welcomed speech, the city council seems to have fostered an environment that’s quite the opposite. And with Billups’ arrest, not only are “the people watching” in Amarillo, but around the state as well.