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Public comment debate returns, grows heated

by LAUREN REICHENBACH
Staff Writer | February 23, 2024 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — Public comment continues to be a hot topic at the Bonner County commissioners’ meetings, and this week, Commissioner Asia Williams put the discussion back on the agenda after it was removed last week.

Williams said the board’s legal counsel has advised officials numerous times that due to county ordinance, if the commissioners do not want to provide public comment during the meetings, they would need to amend the ordinance.

“We can’t arbitrarily remove public comment because someone is not here or because we don’t like what the people are going to say,” she said. “When we do that, we’re removing the right of the people to address Bonner County as a board.”

Williams said while state law does not require public comment in meetings, Bonner County’s ordinance does, and it is inappropriate for the commissioners to remove it at random, leaving the public high and dry. The District 2 commissioner moved to leave public comment in meetings and not arbitrarily remove it from the agenda at random.

Commissioner Luke Omodt, however, stepped down from the chair and moved to amend Williams’s motion, moving instead to have the board hold a meeting with all the county’s elected officials for public comment. That did not sit well with Williams, who claimed that Omodt was introducing a whole new motion, rather than amending hers.

“My motion is addressing the ordinance itself,” she said. “My issue has to do with this particular business meeting, per ordinance, allows for public comment. We need to stop moving it. People come to this meeting to give public comment during this setting on purpose.”

Rather than altering a portion of her motion, Williams reiterated that she felt Omodt had changed the entire foundation of her request.

Commissioner Steve Bradshaw asked deputy attorney Bill Wilson, who attended the meeting via Zoom, for clarification on the issue. According to Bradshaw, his understanding was that there is no requirement for public comment at county business meetings, and the allowance of comment is “at the discretion of the chair at that time.”

Wilson confirmed that while state statute does not require public comment, Bonner County’s ordinances do. However, Wilson said that may change soon.

“There is a bill before the Idaho Legislature that would require at least two minutes of public comment per speaker at ordinary business meetings,” he said. “So this might quickly become a moot point if that state statute changes to require this, and it would probably line up then with our local ordinance.”

After some back and forth between Bradshaw and Williams regarding the term “at the discretion of the chair,” Omodt requested that the board return to discussing the amended motion. That prompted Williams to ask how often the meetings would be held, and when the first meeting would take place. To these questions, Omodt merely responded, “Let’s see who shows up.”

In a follow-up email, Omodt said the opportunity for the public to communicate with their elected officials is a “hallmark of a democratic republic.”

“The regularly scheduled business meetings of the Bonner County Board of Commissioners is not the appropriate place to address the questions that many residents ask,” he said. “Many of their comments are outside the statutory authority of the BOCC. As the chief executives of Bonner County, it is absolutely appropriate for the BOCC to provide this opportunity for residents to be able to ask questions of all their elected local county officials.”

Further back and forth ensued, with Omodt calling for a roll call vote. While Omodt and Bradshaw voted yes to the amendment, Williams continued speaking over the vote and did not cast her own vote.

Now discussing the amended original motion, Williams had more to say.

“Bill Wilson has given a legal opinion that the ordinance for Bonner County provides for public comment in our regular business meetings,” she said. “My request is that this board discontinue removing it unless and until public comment is removed from the ordinance. Otherwise, we are in violation of the ordinance that we put forth.”

Omodt pointed out that the next item on the agenda after Williams’s was for public comment, which rendered her argument about the topic moot. However, Williams pointed out that it was removed last week without notice or a vote by the board, which is why she was bringing it up now.

“That was my decision,” Bradshaw said.

Williams said with the way the current board has treated public comment, Bonner County residents who attend the meetings have no idea if they will be allowed to speak that week or if they will be cut off and have their time wasted.

The public deserves their time to speak in meetings, she said.

“And they’re going to get it,” Omodt responded.

The chairman said the county ordinance — which he pointed out is often ignored — also states that the purpose of the commissioners’ meetings is to conduct the business of Bonner County, although it has been highly debated what constitutes county business.

“The business of Bonner County, regardless of how ugly the sausage being made may look, has and will continue to be accomplished,” he said.

When the roll call vote was called, Williams and Omodt voted yes, while Bradshaw voted no. This caused some confusion as to what motion was being voted on. Williams attempted to get clarification from the clerk as she said if a correction needed to be made, she wanted it done in real time, without Omodt injecting negativity into the meeting.

As things began to become heated again, Omodt called for a recess, which Williams tried to argue with.

“I’m not going to pee my pants for you,” he said. “I’m going to use the latrine like a civilized human being.”