New GCC public comment policy gets mixed reaction from public

Tom Milstead/Torrington Telegram Jack Davidson voiced his displeasure at the new public comment policy enacted by the Goshen County Commission on Tuesday, calling for the resignation of Commission Chairman John Ellis over the new policy.

TORRINGTON – A new public comment policy approved by the Goshen County Board of Commissioners in November has received mixed feedback in the community on social media, and one citizen – Jack Davidson – went through the new process in order to ask for Chairman John Ellis’ resignation during the GCC’s meeting Tuesday in the Goshen County Courthouse.

The new policy, which was explained in-depth on a handout distributed to the public before Tuesday’s meeting, states that “persons attending a meeting may address the commission during the period of time specified on the agenda,” and that presentations concerning agenda items will be heard only upon approval by the chair. It also requires citizens to be on the agenda to speak to the commission outside of the allotted public comment period at the end of the GCC’s meeting. To get on the agenda, citizens must contact Goshen County Clerk Cindy Kenyon no later than the Friday before they would like to speak with the GCC.

In the past, the commission would open the floor for public comments and questions during the county’s departmental reports, but the county’s governors voted unanimously last month to alter that policy. 

The changes were due to increasingly hostile confrontations between public commenters, the GCC and county personnel. The situation came to a head during the Nov. 5 meeting, when county resident Bill Brandt approached the dais and called Ellis “a two-bit, lying politician” during a discussion on the state of his road. 

The new policy addresses outbursts toward the commission and county staff, stating that “comments should not include threatening or obscene language, personal defamatory statements, or disorderly conduct (during a) meeting, hearing or other proceeding.”

Davidson, who also spoke to the GCC during the Nov. 5 meeting, voiced his displeasure with Ellis and the new public comment policy during the public comment period on Tuesday. Davidson cited issues with the GCC’s decision to not immediately hire a new Goshen County Road and Bridge Superintendent, as well as the new public comment policy, as reasons for Ellis to resign. 

“John, I think you ought to resign because of the decisions you’ve been making,” Davidson said. “You promised you’d start searching for somebody to take over the roads, and you chose to go with what you’ve got. You said there’s 40 years of mistakes that need to be made up for, so you’re going to go with the same things that went backwards for 40 years? You’re just keeping right on.”

Davidson said the new comment policy infringes on his First Amendment rights. 

“This little thing we’ve got going with this paper tells us we can only speak for three minutes, that we have to go through Cindy, that we have to sign up – John, you’re bucking on my freedom of speech,” he said. 

“I just think you don’t want your job. You don’t like your job, because you don’t like us. We don’t like you, and we’d like for you to leave.”

Ellis did not comment on Davidson’s request. 

“Thank you,” Ellis said. 

Goshen County residents took to social media as news of the changes broke. 

“It’s one thing to require a ‘civil open discussion’ during their meetings, it’s another not to engage the public at a public meeting,” Roger Huckfeldt wrote. “I hope they will allow discussions. They’ll never learn about the issues if questions and answers aren’t taken.”

During the Nov. 19 meeting when the changes were made, Ellis said the intent of the changes was not to stifle public comment, but to prevent situations like the shouting match that occurred on Nov. 5. 

“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.”

But some county residents, like Casey Blevins, accused the GCC of “changing the rules” because it didn’t like the feedback. 

“I’m pretty sure (the) commissioners invited the public to (the meetings), now (they’re) acting like a bunch of Democrats changing the rules in the middle of the game because they didn’t like the way it went,” Blevins wrote.

Another citizen, Dale Harper, said it’s the commission’s fault the issue got to a point where people needed to confront them in such a manner. 

“The commissioners should get their job done so the people have no complaints that escalate to this point,” Harper wrote. “Had the roads been fixed say, a year prior to this meeting, no one would have shown up complaining.”

During the public comment period on Nov. 19, Ellis told county resident Patricia Conway the best way for the public to express its concerns over the roads is to contact the citizen-led road advisory committee, which was formed over the summer. The committee is a part of the GCC’s five-point plan to address issues with county roads, along with hiring a new superintendent for the Goshen County Road and Bridge Department, seeking out additional training for the county’s equipment operators, examining the possibility of using outside contractors to catch up on problem areas and exploring a special use tax directed toward fixing roads. 

David Walker currently leads the committee. 

“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.”

On the committee’s Facebook page, Shane Trompke – who represents the Jay Em area – said receiving those complaints is the committee’s job, but people seem to be hesitant to reach out to the group. 

“In my personal opinion, if folks would come to us like we have been volunteering to do, maybe this wouldn’t have happened,” Trompke wrote. “I am sorry, but I don’t get very many calls or complaints and that is what our group is for, honestly. I don’t think people take us seriously and that’s where we are at now.”

Ellis said he doesn’t like having to change the policy, but the confrontations over the roads have been a regular occurrence for more than a year. 

“I just absolutely hate to do it,” Ellis said. “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.

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

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