Angry split on county commission emerges over COVID-19 public health guidelines and reopening

Mike Brown, left (File photo.)

A badly split and at times angry county commission broke down in confusion Thursday over what its role should be in advising future safe practices for businesses now that Gov. Laura Kelly has turned her reopening orders into mere recommendations.

They ended with two votes that expressed support in different ways for the general distancing and safety guidelines that have often been recommended. But although more than two dozen councilmembers from various Johnson County cities signed a letter asking for something enforceable, the commissioners all stressed that their votes were for voluntary cooperation only.

The hour-plus discussion involved calls for a parliamentarian, a reference to a letter from Garmin International and back-and-forth exchanges that struggled to be civil. And the controversy was not limited to just the reopening advice. Earlier in the meeting commissioners staked out opposing sides on whether to spend $5,000 on Plexiglas dividers for when their meetings return to the hearing room next month.

By the end, Commissioner Steve Klika asked for a delay in other business on the budget. “I think it’s time for a cool down,” he said.

The county had been following Kelly’s Ad Astra plan for a phased reopening. All of that was upended, though, when Kelly reduced her plan to recommendations Tuesday, effectively throwing those decisions back to the county level.

With the ball back in Johnson County’s court, Chairman Ed Eilert put forth a proposal to rebrand and tweak Phase 3 of the Ad Astra plan and implement it immediately for two weeks. The plan emphasized social distancing, sanitizing and other oft-recommended practices, but it also suggested a limit of 45 for large gatherings, continuation of telecommuting when possible and six-foot separation among restaurant tables. Eilert suggested excluding places of worship.

Eilert emphasized that these were “expectations,” not orders. The goal is to reinforce the recommendations of health department officials and give guidance to businesses on responsible operations, he said, referencing the Springfield hairdresser incident that got national attention last week. Authorities said a hairdresser who worked sick and later tested positive directly exposed 84 people to the virus.

However Commissioner Mike Brown, a frequent skeptic of stay-at-home orders and some other public health directives, immediately opposed Eilert’s idea. “I have full faith in citizens of our county to manage themselves,” he said, offering as evidence a recent lunch he ate in Overland Park in which customers were distancing themselves.

“We have no business stepping forward into this arena. We need to leave Johnson County alone. Johnson County can handle itself. I have all the faith in our citizens and our businesses to manage themselves,” Brown said.

Brown also mentioned an email he received from Garmin that he said asked the county not to take any further actions to lock down business, though Eilert said his proposal did not amount to a lockdown.

And Brown questioned the motives of the city council members who signed the letter asking for guidance, calling it a disingenuous move.

“Twenty electors in Johnson County signed a letter that government should be a nanny state and should take care of them and I would submit that all 20 of them are wrong,” he said.

Klika, too, objected to Eilert’s proposal, saying it would only confuse the public. “I think it’s time to let this process run itself out and not confuse the issue any further,” he said.

Commissioner Janeé Hanzlick sided with Eilert, though, saying the commission acts as the board of public health and has a responsibility to provide clear guidance.

Things began to break down after Brown offered a competing motion that endorsed the call for voluntary social distancing practices expressed by Public Health Director Sanmi Areola, PhD and Public Health Officer Joseph LeMaster, MD, MPH.

Brown’s motion did not make the practices an “expectation” and did not have the provision for group gatherings or the two-week timeframe.

After a brief kerfuffle over whose motion was actually on the floor, commissioners voted twice, approving each motion. Voting for Brown’s motion were Commissioners Klika, Brown, Michael Ashcraft and Jim Allen. Against were Eilert, Hanzlick and Commissioner Beck Fast.

The vote for Eilert’s motion was also 4-3, with Fast, Allen, Hanzlick and Eilert voting yes and Klika, Brown and Ashcraft voting no.

The reopening proposal was not the first time in the meeting that the distancing arguments broke that way. Earlier, the county manager’s office presented a modification plan for the hearing room that would have removed all but four or five chairs from the visitor’s section, placed a waiting area outside the hearing room and placed Plexiglas barriers between each commissioner.

The only expense was for the $5,000 barriers, which were designed to be removable and may be reimbursed from federal funds. But Brown, Klika and Ashcraft questioned the message they might send. Klika said it projected an aura of fear.

“The optics are terrible from the public perspective,” Klika said. “If any commissioner is fearful of their health or welfare they can participate by Zoom. From an optics standpoint having us in little cubbyholes this is not what we want to present to the general public. It’s all just promoting this ongoing fear.”

Ashcraft also said he wasn’t convinced of the value of the screen guards, while Brown called them “a ridiculous expenditure of $5,000.”

“If there are commissioners who are concerned for their health, for their condition,” or those concerned about bringing the virus to a susceptible family member, Brown said, “then I would encourage them to continue to meet via Zoom. The rest of us, however, should be in the hearing room.”

Eilert countered that the commission needs to consider the optics of setting a good example for following health guidelines. “For us to set ourselves apart from those guidelines is not the best optics also,” he said.

The amount to be spent on the modifications didn’t require a vote, however, and staff indicated it would proceed as planned.