County commissions alters public comment policy after heated road discussions

Tom Milstead/Torrington Telegram Goshen County Commission Chairman John Ellis, and the rest of the commission, voted unanimously to change its public comment policy during Tuesday’s meeting.

TORRINGTON – Due to exceedingly contentious confrontations between Goshen County residents, personnel and elected officials that have played out over the past year at Goshen County Commission meetings, the board voted unanimously on Tuesday to make a significant change to the way it receives public comment during its meetings. 

The GCC will now require speakers to be on the agenda for the meetings that will require the interested party to contact Goshen County Clerk Cindy Kenyon by Friday morning before the meeting. Discussions will be limited to three minutes, with an open public comment session at the end of each meeting. Without being on the agenda, citizens must wait until the public comment session to address the commission.

Chairman John Ellis said the changes are due to a series of loud and heated discussions concerning the state of some Goshen County roads. 

“As everybody here is aware, we’ve had some really contentious moments in the last six or eight months,” he said. “They’ve gotten to the point where we’re going to have to do something. We can’t let this go on anymore.”

The changes come just two weeks after Ellis and citizen Bill Brandt took part in one of those contentious moments. During a heated discussion about Brandt’s road during the Road and Bridge Department report, Brandt approached the dais, pointed at Ellis and called him a “two-bit, lying politician.”

That incident was the latest in a long string of incidents involving citizens who are upset about the state of the county’s roads. The situation came to a head in June when a crowd of around 80 people attended the GCC meeting to discuss the issue.  

That meeting prompted the GCC to implement a five-point plan to fix the roads. The plan included hiring a new road and bridge department superintendent, training operators, considering a special use tax dedicated to road repair, seeking outside contractors to help the county catch up on repairs, and establishment of a citizen-led road committee that would report issues and concerns to the GCC. 

After the outburst at the Nov. 5 meeting, Ellis said the county will have to “change its way of doing things.

“We’re going to change our rules and regulations concerning the way we do things during these Goshen County Commission meetings,” he said. “I just absolutely hate to do it. Goshen County is one of the few places left that people can come in and express their opinion in a gentlemanly, decent sort of manner and get the job done without having trouble of some kind, but that’s obviously not happening.”

Ellis then reiterated that citizens have to be on the agenda to speak during the departmental heads’ reports. All comments from the public must be directed to the chairman to prevent personal attacks against county personnel. 

Vice Chairman Cody Cox agreed with Ellis, and added that speakers will have to remain behind the large table used by the department heads while speaking with the GCC. 

“We need to do some fixing on this,” Cox said. “That’s the route we need to go.”

During the public comment session at the end of Tuesday’s meeting, citizen Patricia Conway asked Ellis if there were any guidelines when speaking to the commission. 

“It’s OK to have a complaint, but it would also be nice if you could follow that with a solution,” Ellis said. 

Ellis then said he would recommend that residents who have issues with roads to report them to the citizen road committee, and let committee head David Walker bring those concerns to the commission. 

“We have the road committee, and we much prefer the comments come from your chairman, rather than have a whole lot of public comment,” Ellis said. “Meet with him, he gets on the agenda and carries out the comments. That is what he’s there for. That is what the road committee is for.”

The new meeting rules are not intended to stifle public comment, Ellis said, but to try and keep discussions civilized and prevent them from escalating into shouting matches. 

“We’re not going to restrain peoples’ right to come in and speak their piece,” Ellis said. “Under the circumstances, we’re going to have to calm it down.”

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