Newly elected county commission chair Mike Kelly announced early in the week before his first meeting that the board would be instituting a new policy and rules in order to change the flow of meetings and more strictly enforce procedures that had become lax. The biggest change was to no longer allow residents to give public comments through Zoom during the weekly commission meetings, and no longer stream in-person comments on air unless they are given during certain action items listed on the agenda. The action item agenda comments will still be aired on the live stream and recorded for the video archive. Residents can still send written correspondence to board members.
“One of those responsibilities and duties is to oversee these proceedings, ensuring the best I can decorum and order, and it’s a duty I don’t take lightly, and it’s reflected not only in our rules but the county charter,” Kelly said. “My goal for these meetings is to foster as best we can a productive and fact-based dialogue between the residents and their elected officials.”
He also said in a written communication the reason for the change was because false information had been shared about public health and commissioners broadcast live to the world.
“The general public portion of meetings is an opportunity for you as residents to make comments directly to us, your elected leaders,” he said. “That has not changed by my adjustments.”
Residents filled the board room, some with signs, to protest the recent change repeatedly stating the board was censoring their voices and discriminating against the disabled and people who can’t attend in person for work commitments and various other responsibilities.
Residents said they were also upset that the new board chair had made the universal decision without a vote from the other commissioners, and it was a violation of rights through the U.S. Bill of Rights Amendments 1 and 14.
Jennifer Williams, southwest rural county resident, said people at home are relying on public discourse, there was a shadow government trying to silence citizens and the decisions they make and say effect the people.
“If a judge silenced one attorney to the jury, and the jury only got to part of it, they’re not getting the whole story,” she said. “Every single one of us in public opposition is important in a republic, and we all need to be able to hear what’s going on so we can make informed decisions. So, I do hope that it wasn’t out of malice and that it was just an error, and I do hope that you listen to the people.”
Debbie Detmer, Shawnee resident, said she also hoped they would reconsider changes back to the old public comment format because in August 2021 YouTube had reversed their course on airing “unsuitable” content.
She said changing platforms was always an option.
“Transparency is a must,” Detmer said. “Please stop this course of action.”
Ben Hobart, Westwood Hills resident, said it was essential to have a record that was easily accessible and meaningful public discourse.
Gary Morgan, Shawnee resident, read a poem to the commissioners. He said they had lost their spiritual equilibrium, abused their power and called it politics.
“You have awoken the people of Johnson County,” he said. “You have helped awaken a sleeping giant.”
Steven Snitt, Prairie Village resident, said the new chair had expressed thoughts wanting to collaborate but had already blown it by restricting the community’s voices.
“The public must write a letter or travel to Olathe,” he said. “I don’t want to write a letter. It is less effective.”
Stephanie Berland, Olathe resident, compared the actions toward them as the way people had been deemed heretics during biblical times or other geniuses throughout history had been shunned.
“Einstein. Plato. They all spread ‘misinformation’,” she said.
Mike Duffield, county resident, said the only way to be heard is to be present in person and then there would be no record, and it was like erasing records of history.
Angela Bertocchini, Leawood resident, said it was valuable to be able to hear public comments to learn about things that matter to the community.
“You believe your voice is more important,” she said.
Scott Bertocchini, Leawood resident, said most people agreed that livestreaming the public comments was the best interest for the county government and the new implemented change was limiting speech and access to information.
“Most people are unable to attend in person,” he said. “It is discrimination.”
Carol Donis, county resident, said it was important to hear and listen to all residents of the county.
Joyce Whittier, county resident, said the unilateral decision made by Kelly without the commissioners was a violation of due process rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and she planned on filing a complaint with newly elected Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach.
Cassie Woolworth, resident, was the only public commenter who favored the new change and said the due process and 14th Amendment didn’t apply to public comments at public government meetings but to the judicial system.
She said she appreciated not having a peanut gallery at meetings anymore and if people were upset about censorship, they could use their phone camera to turn on their video and post the recording online.
“How did you do it before 2020,” Woolworth said. District 3 Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara and District 5 Commissioner Michael Ashcraft also opposed the change in public comments policy and made several unsuccessful attempts to reverse the vote. They were overruled twice by Kelly as they battled back and forth.
He said the motions were out of order because of the timing during the meeting and their lack of prior communication about adding an action item.
O’Hara tried once to overrule Kelly backed by Ashcraft and District 2 commissioner Jeff Meyers, but failed in her attempt.
District 6 commissioner Shirley Allenbrand requested to make a comment at one point during the debate and was also told by Kelly she was out of order.
Audience members audibly shared disdain for Kelly’s actions and comments toward O’Hara and Ashcraft.
Johnson County isn’t the only municipality that has made similar decisions recently about how public comments are treated, which has created criticism and debates about the role of public comments in a public meeting.
Edgerton City Council doesn’t livestream their meetings.
Gardner City Council and the Gardner Edgerton School Board allow public comments, and they are aired on their livestream channels. The USD 231 school district faced relentless criticism during the pandemic for shutting citizens outside the building and reversed course after the retirement of former Superintendent Pam Stranahan.