Johnson County commissioners will not permit verbal public comment at their next board meeting. Instead, the commission will meet by Zoom on Dec. 3. Members will accept written comments that will be added to the public record, but not read aloud during the meeting.
Last Thursday, Commission Chair Ed Eilert suggested the change after listening to more than two hours of public comment. Eilert suggested eliminating public redress due to the Thanksgiving holiday, after which he said he anticipates a spike in Coronavirus cases.
“We’ve been told before, following a holiday there generally is some kind of surge,” Eilert said.
Commissioner Mike Brown opposed moving the next commission meeting to Zoom. He noted that constituents can appear live on the virtual platform.
“I would be supportive if we get to a position where public comment can continue — not just written, but live,” Brown said.
Citizens address commission
Limiting the public’s access to commissioners won’t stop Emily Coleman. She speaks before the commission regularly.
“I don’t speak at the (Johnson County Board of County Commissioners) meetings with any expectation that public commentary has an impact on how the commissioners vote,” she said. “We know their votes are predetermined by their professional and political associations. I go because I hope to let other citizens who have similar concerns about government overreach know that there are others out there who are pushing back.”
Coleman spoke at Thursday’s meeting. She was one of more than 30 speakers. Members of the public addressed the commission for more than two hours last week.
“Every time I speak, I meet new people who are finding their courage and voice. They are learning that our elected officials are not representing us well or fairly and this knowledge ignites the fire to fight back,” she said. “Our community grows each week, and we are learning as we grow.”
According to Brown, lengthy meetings are the norm of late as citizens address the county commission about COVID-related mandates. The majority of speakers on Thursday asked commissioners to reject a resolution that will allow county code enforcers to levy fines to businesses for not complying with mask mandates and other COVID-related county orders.
Public pressure builds
“Putting a cork on the top of the bottle doesn’t make the pressure inside the bottle turn down,” Brown said. “The pressure is going to go up tremendously. The people are not going to accept this.”
Commissioners listen to public comments at every meeting. Officials limit speakers to three minutes each. The commission returned to in-person sessions late last spring, but guests hoping to address the commissioners are not allowed into the board room until it is their turn to speak. Instead, they line the hallways outside. The room has large windows, through which they can watch. However, at one point, the curtains remained closed when the commission first started meeting again in-person. A loudspeaker pipes sound from the meeting room into the hall. Guests watch the meetings online as they wait to be called into the room.
In total, last week’s meeting lasted more than four-and-a-half hours with comments from the public filling more than two hours of meeting time. One person spoke in favor of a mask mandate. The remainder asked the commission to reject an enforcement mechanism that would unleash county code bureaucrats as health code enforcers.
The enforcement mechanism would allow code enforcers to levy fines to businesses of up to $500 for failing to maintain social distancing guidelines. Law enforcement officers will not be involved, just county employees considered to be code enforcers, including positions such as the safety and loss control officer, zoning administrator, chief building inspector, sanitation and health inspectors, and the chief sanitary sewer inspector.
Andrew Cross, a Johnson County resident, warned that the proposal could damage small businesses.
“Enforcement would be on our employees,” he told the commission. “It could put our employees at risk, especially if you have a belligerent customer.”
County adopts COVID mandate enforcement
Under the proposal, citizens would call a hotline to report businesses that aren’t fully complying with county health mandates. (Commissioner Mike Brown calls it the ‘snitch line.’) The Johnson County Health Department would send county code enforcers to investigate. Eilert said the ultimate goal of the enforcers would be to educate business owners to encourage their compliance. Enforcers would have the option of levying fines, however.
“Will the code enforcers have legal authority to enter private businesses to conduct social distancing inspections?” Asked Dave Trabert, CEO of Kansas Policy Institute. (KPI owns the Sentinel.)
Trabert posed a series of questions to commissioners. He wondered if the county would hire more enforcers and how the court would deal with enforcement.
“Who bears the burden of proof in enforcement court?” He asked. “… will it be beyond a reasonable doubt, clear and convincing evidence, the preponderance of the evidence, or are we just presumed guilty? Will the county or city provide free legal assistance to those who can’t afford it?”
Constituents can address commission in writing
County officials haven’t released the Dec. 3 agenda. Coleman says she’ll supply written comments to commissioners since she won’t be allowed to address them in-person. And those who regularly address the county about its COVID mandates may gather in person at a rally, though details for an event have not yet been confirmed.
Coleman’s goal isn’t necessarily to change commissioners’ minds but to share information with them that they won’t hear from bureaucrats or the health department.
“I want to make sure that when the commissioners’ actions finally come under review, they can’t play dumb and say they didn’t know. They’ll know because citizens stood before them and shared that information,” she said.