Criticism of Lake County Board members may lead to changes in public comment rules

Criticism of Lake County Board members may lead to changes in public comment rules

The Lake County Board might take a closer look at public comment rules during its meetings.

During a County Board meeting Tuesday, a number of residents submitted their concerns in writing, criticizing a Republican fundraiser hosted in September.

The issue stemmed from the attendance by some board members to the large gathering that boasted a “without fear and without masks!” message on social media.

Lake County Board member Michael Rummel

Lake County Board member Michael Rummel (Michael Rummel photo)

In several of the letters read during the comment portion of the Zoom meeting, residents criticized Republican board members Mike Rummel, Michael Danforth and Dick Barr for attending the September event, saying their job as elected officials is to follow county health guidelines, like social distancing, no large gatherings and wearing face masks.

Some suggested they step down, or that something be done about their actions.

Lake County Board member Michael A. Danforth.

Lake County Board member Michael A. Danforth. (Lake County Board Handout)

Before all the letters were read, Republican board member Anne Maine questioned whether criticism of a private activity was allowed by the County Board meetings rules.

“People were acting not as board members, but in a personal capacity,” Maine said.

Rules read out loud by board meetings parliamentarian Matt Norton state that, “persons addressing the public body shall not be permitted to make statements or remarks that concern only the private activities, lifestyles or beliefs of others, including individual employees of the county or its elected officials unrelated to the business of the County Board or the professional duties and performance of its employees or the employees of its elected officials.”

Lake County Board member Dick Barr.

Lake County Board member Dick Barr. (Dick Barr / HANDOUT)

Republican board member Brent Paxton also raised the question of whether the letters addressed private activities.

“In my opinion, this is setting a dangerous precedent; when you’re examining personal lives of the Lake County Board members and bringing that up when the business is, in my opinion, totally unrelated to the business of the County Board,” Paxton said.

Neither Paxton or Maine were named in the letters.

Board Chair Sandy Hart explained there had been a conversation regarding the allowance of the letters — although she had not read them, she said — prior to the meeting, and it was determined by staff familiar with the rules to be “right on the edge,” but admissible.

On Thursday, Hart doubled down on the decision.

“Our attorney reviewed the comments and found they were all permissible under the rules,” Hart said.

Adding that at the last meeting in September, a large number of residents wrote in to voice their approval of the board’s Net Zero resolution for gas emissions, Hart said, “It’s very important we remember that public comment is for the public to say what’s on their mind, whether that’s positive or a criticism.”

During the meeting, board member Paul Frank suggested that if the issue of public comment rules is not clear, it should be addressed at the next Rules Committee meeting, which is scheduled in December.

Rummel said he was unhappy with the way the letters were handled.

“If that had happened at a live board meeting, the parliamentarian would have stopped it,” Rummel said. “Unfortunately, we’re meeting under COVID rules on Zoom.”

Rummel said allowing personal attacks in letters during public comment, which have happened on both sides of the political aisle since the board started meetings on Zoom this year, is a slippery slope to the invasion of people’s private lives.

According to county staff, there have been other occasions pre-COVID when the public has been allowed to send their comments via email because they could not make a meeting in person.

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