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Weber County leaders OK change giving them leeway on managing input at meetings

By Tim Vandenack - | Oct 19, 2021
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Weber County commissioners receive a comment on a proposed change meant to give them more leeway in managing public comment at their meetings on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. The officials later approved the change.
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Weber County commissioners discuss a change meant to give them more leeway in managing public comment at their meetings on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.

OGDEN — Weber County Commissioners have approved a change giving them more leeway in setting guidelines on commenting from the public at their meetings, spurred by disruptions from audience members at several gatherings dating at least to last August.

“I want to give people the right to speak,” County Commissioner Jim Harvey said Tuesday. But he doesn’t want the public to “filibuster” county commission meetings on matters unrelated to the issues the body is addressing, unnecessarily prolonging them or hampering official action.

The ordinance commissioners approved on Tuesday, outlined in state law, allows them to set guidelines on public speaking at the body’s meetings. Given the disruptions in recent months, officials have stopped allowing public comment. In the wake of Tuesday’s action, though, Harvey, the commission chairman, said he is considering resuming the public comment portion of the body’s gatherings, perhaps restricting commenting to matters on the meeting agenda.

Commissioners approved the first reading of the new ordinance last week, preceding Tuesday’s action, and the move has its roots in occurrences at several meetings in recent months.

At one, Harvey said, attendees took advantage of the public comment portion of the gathering to read a 33-minute speech on an issue not related to agenda items. The speakers who had organized the effort would each read for three minutes, the allotted time per person for public comments, then pass on to the next person. Ultimately, commissioners adjourned the meeting as the reading continued, according to Harvey.

At another meeting, commissioners called a recess because of disruptions from audience members, resuming after Weber County Sheriff’s Office deputies intervened, reestablishing order, according to Chris Crockett. He’s a deputy attorney in the Weber County Attorney’s Office and helped draft the change, approved unanimously on Tuesday.

Harvey also said some of the disruptive meeting-goers would hold up signs from their seats with critical messages, distracting commissioners.

A key focus for the contingent who spurred commissioners to action has been the public response to the COVID-19 pandemic and, more particularly, opposition to mandates on the use of masks to slow the spread of the virus. County officials have discussed, very generally, the possibility of a mask mandate, but haven’t implemented such change.

Jennifer of South Ogden, who didn’t provide her last name, addressed commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting, saying she thought the new policy stemmed from her group’s “messaging” about the COVID-19 response.

“You’re enacting this to silence us because you don’t agree with our messaging,” she said. “We don’t want to hijack your meetings,” she went on, “but we want to talk to you and get our point across.”

After the meeting, Carolyn Lietuvininkas singled out presentations Weber-Morgan Health Department Director Brian Cowan has given commissioners on the COVID-19 situation. He gives commissioners a weekly update on the COVID-19 situation in the two counties, typically at work sessions where public comment isn’t allowed.

“We’re not even allowed to comment on his lies and distortions,” Lietuvininkas said.

For his part, Crockett said the change received plenty of vetting and that it complies with state law and the U.S. Constitution. “It’s been very, very thoroughly vetted,” Crockett said.

The room where commissioners hold their meetings is a “limited public forum,” according to the policy enacted Tuesday. “A limited public forum is an area that has not traditionally been open for the free exercise of expressive activity but is made available by the county for expressive activity subject to the restrictions contained in this policy,” reads the measure approved Tuesday.

Despite the change, Harvey said commissioners are open and responsive to constituents and want to hear from them. “We return telephone calls, we return emails,” he said.

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