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JoCo Commission keeps new public comment rules

Johnson County Commission public comment

Rules regarding public comments instituted by new county chair Mike Kelly remain in place after Kelly’s first meeting Thursday, despite some opposition from residents and other commissioners. Several residents attended

Rules regarding public comments instituted by new county chair Mike Kelly remain in place after Kelly’s first meeting Thursday, despite some opposition from residents and other commissioners.

Several residents attended Thursday’s meeting — Kelly’s first as chair — in person to protest the new rules, which end livestreaming of public comments at commission meetings and require residents to give their comments either in person or in writing.

After discussion, some commissioners moved to put the new policies to a vote, which failed by a 4-3 margin.

Johnson County Commission public comment
Above, Johnson County residents at Thursday’s meeting. Photo by Lucie Krisman.

Kelly announced the new rules last week

  • The rules changes include no longer livestreaming or recording the general public comment period at the start of commission meetings.
  • Commenters are now also required to comment in person or in writing, and if they want to speak, they must sign up in advance.
  • Kelly cited the need for a more “respectful tone” at meetings plus the possibility that misinformation said by commenters could lose the county access to its YouTube channel as reasons for the changes.
  • At times over the past three years, large crowds of residents have turned out at commission meetings during public comments, opposing COVID-19 mitigation measures and voicing false and misleading claims about recent elections.

Some residents turned out in protest Thursday

  • Some in attendance Thursday called Kelly’s concern about losing YouTube access unfounded, noting that the video-sharing platform has said it will make exceptions for local government meetings.
  • They also argued that the new rules will hinder residents who don’t have the physical or financial means to get to weekly meetings.
  • “Your unilateral choice to eliminate Zoom calls for your constituents is discriminating against the disabled,” said Shawnee resident Debbie Detmer, who has been a frequent commenter at past meetings. “Transparency is a must. We need to trust you are working for all the people in the county and not dictating your unilateral opinions.”

Commissioner O’Hara maintained her opposition

  • District 3 Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara, who lost to Kelly in last year’s chair election, voiced concerns about the new rules last week.
  • At Thursday’s meeting, she thanked the group of commenters who had come each by name for being “patriots” and sharing their concerns.
  • “I want to thank (the residents) for coming and sharing their thoughts,” she said “I apologize for the board that we are blocking those public comments.”

A motion to vote on the rules failed

  • Following public comments and again during commissioner comments at the end of Thursday’s meeting, District 5 Commissioner Michael Ashcraft moved to put the new rules to a vote.
  • Both attempts were seconded by O’Hara.
  • The first time the motion was called out of order, and the second time it failed by a 4-3 margin, with Ashcraft, O’Hara and District 2 Commissioner Jeff Meyers voting against them.

Kelly reiterated his priorities as board chair

  • In his own commissioner comments, Kelly said his decision to change public comment rules came from his priority for maintaining decorum at meetings.
  • He encouraged residents who could not make meetings in person to contact him or the county in other ways, including by email and letter.
  • “It’s a duty I don’t take lightly and it’s reflected not only in our rules, but in the county charter,” he said. “The general public portion of the meetings is an opportunity for you as residents to make comments directly to us your elected leaders. That has not changed by my adjustments.”

Go deeper: New JoCo chair Mike Kelly says board will stop streaming public comments