Will one of the nation's most polite cities need a law to force City Council members to be polite at public meetings?
Some Charleston council members think so, and debated the issue at length Tuesday.
The council members were too polite to directly say so, but the proposed "rules of decorum" ordinance is all about Councilman Tim Mallard.
Several council members referred to a loud, lengthy argument Mallard had with Clerk of Council Vanessa Turner-Maybank at the end of the previous council meeting, but none mentioned Mallard's name.
Mallard does not dispute that the ordinance is aimed at him, but insists it's unwarranted.
"I don't feel like I did anything wrong," he said.
Mallard has emerged as a critic of Mayor Joe Riley, and is prone to demonstrative behavior during council meetings. Mallard said he thinks Riley is behind the decorum ordinance, but fellow conservative council member Aubry Alexander claims authorship.
"I believe we need something in place to address our decorum within these chambers," Alexander said.
Riley, for his part, has written three letters to Mallard this year about his treatment of city staff on different occasions.
"I have received numerous complaints concerning the disrespectful way in which you treat some members of city staff, both in person and in your email and phone conversations," the mayor wrote to Mallard in a letter last week. "You demeanor and behavior toward them is not what they deserve nor is it contributory to effective and efficient working relationships."
Mallard suggested Tuesday that the decorum issue is an effort by the mayor to draw attention away from other issues, such as criticism about Fire Department operations.
Alexander said it's about council holding itself to the same standards it imposes on residents. He notes that council previously adopted an ordinance putting limits on what the public can say at meetings.
"Gentlemen, are we so arrogant as to hold ourselves above our citizens?" Alexander said.
The ordinance governing residents' behavior was adopted in 2007 after local black Muslim community activist Mohammed Idris used a racial epithet -- the "n-word" -- during comments to council.
The City Council decorum ordinance would allow whoever is presiding over a meeting, usually Riley, to warn council members who violate the rules, and if they persist, have them removed from the meeting and found guilty of a misdemeanor.
Leaving one's seat while a vote is being taken would violate the rules, as would speaking disrespectfully to city staff.
"This gives the presiding officer unbelievable authority, without due process," said Councilman William Dudley Gregorie. "It criminalizes free speech."
"I don't know what 'unparliamentary language' means, so I wouldn't know if I was breaking the law," he said.
Council unanimously voted to defer the issue in order to address legal questions and also review the existing ordinance dealing with residents.
"I think the whole thing could be resolved with an apology and a handshake," said Councilman Blake Hallman.
On Tuesday, neither was forthcoming.