Commissioners begin new year with elections

By: 
Alexis Barker, NLJ News Editor

Despite being passed up for leadership positions in a pair of 3-2 votes, Weston County Commissioner Don Taylor asked for time on the agenda of last week’s meeting to present a vision for how the commission would govern in the future. 

Taylor is the only one of the three senior members of the five-member board, who wasn’t chosen for a leadership position during the commissioners first meeting of the year on Jan. 3, but he didn’t let that stop him from laying out a list of considerations for the board after they selected Ed Wagoner as Chairman and Nathan Todd for the position of Vice-Chairman. 

Taylor said that the list of goals he presented were directly related to concerns raised by  constituents who spoke to him. The list included a proposal for night meetings and prayer at meetings, requested removal of the “disruptive public” statute that appears on the agenda for commissioners meetings and asked for solutions to alleged technology issues that prevent people from fully accessing meetings via Zoom.

 

Night meetings

In order to increase access to the board, Taylor suggested that the commissioners consider meeting at night on their second meeting of each month. He said that the board hasn’t necessarily made itself available to the public by holding meetings from 9 a.m. to any time between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and suggested public access and involvement would be improved if the commissioners met in the evening — as the vast majority of governing boards do.

Newly elected Chairman Ed Wagoner and Vice-Chairman Nathan Todd pointed out potential issues with holding evening meetings, including access to department heads and information from their offices. It was pointed out that attendance at evening meetings would be difficult for some of them, including the county clerk and county attorney, and that could result in restrictions on the agenda. 

“There have been attendance issues with our own commissioners (during the day) and this would eliminate just one day a month (of two) … The City Council does it. I think it is worth a try,” Taylor argued. 

New commissioners Vera Huber and Garrett Borton supported Taylor’s suggestion to hold a regular evening meeting to better accommodate
the public. 

“It was mentioned to me during campaigning …  They can’t come during the day but would like to attend,” Huber said, noting that she could see how the agenda would have to be limited because of limited access to department heads and information. 

Despite those limitations, she said, she thinks the board should give it a try. 

“People can’t leave work unless they are sick. If they have a problem or want to see what we do … It is worth trying,” Huber said. 

Borton stated that if the people are asking for it, the board should make it available. 

“If it is not supported, obviously we can come back,” he said.

There was no motion to hold any future commission meetings at night.

 

Prayer at meetings

In 2019, both the Newcastle City Council and the Weston County Commissioners eliminated the invocation, or prayer, before their meetings. Before that, the invocation and pledge of allegiance were the first official acts to kick off every meeting for each board, and they were listed at the top of every agenda. 

At last week’s meeting, Taylor said that restoration of the prayer was another request from the public and he spoke in favor of a return to the practice. He even suggested that the prayer could take place before the official meeting begins. 

Huber added that this was another issue she discussed during her campaign and that she would support returning prayer to the agenda. She said she was dissatisfied with a proposal to have a prayer before the meeting, something she called a “cop out.” 

“I was told at one point there is the possibility of a lawsuit, but I don’t feel that is possible here. I don’t feel like that is going to happen here. People are same-minded here about that,” Huber said. 

In 2019 when the prayer was removed, Tony Barton, a former commissioner and the chairman at the time, said that the county had discontinued the practice because several commissioners believed that the invocation was an outdated tradition that should be eliminated. 

During the Jan. 3 meeting, Wagoner stated that the board at the time was advised to remove the invocation because “some state back east had their butt handed to them” in a lawsuit. When pressed by Borton, Wagoner noted that this was the “potential lawsuit” Huber had referred to.

County Attorney Michael Stulken confirmed that the county could be exposed to legal action if they returned to the practice of officially starting their meetings with a prayer.

“That is the reasoning. Personally, I agree with you guys, but legally, if it is part of official county business, we are wide open to a lawsuit,” Stulken said. 

Todd also pushed back against acknowledging a prayer as part of the commissioner’s meetings, indicating that he has a problem with possibly disrespecting those present who do not believe in God. 

“Everyone has the right to believe how they want. I don’t know if it should be during the official meeting,” he reasoned. 

Wagoner agreed, throwing his support behind the idea of having the prayer before the meeting to avoid putting the county in legal peril. 

“We are here before the meeting anyway. … I don’t want to open the county up to a lawsuit,” Wagoner said. 

The board then agreed to have the invocation before the start of the official meeting. 

 

Removal of agenda warning

The commissioner next discussed the inclusion on future agendas of a highlighted reference to the state statute that empowers boards to deal with disruptive behavior from members of the public during meetings..

Wyoming State Statute 16-4-406, which deals with the disruption of public meetings, is printed in red on the back of the board agendas made available to the public at meetings. The statute first appeared on the back of the June 7 agenda, upon the recommendation of Todd, and Taylor asked the board to consider removing the warning from future agendas.

“By this time, I think everyone is aware. If needed, we can hang it on the wall. I don’t think it’s welcoming on our agenda and it reflects on us … in a way,” Taylor said. “Some thought it was necessary at one time, but I don’t know if it is necessary now. I recommend that it be removed.” 

Borton, who wasn’t on the board when the board agreed to put the statute  on the agenda, asked why it was put there. 

“I would love to address it. There was a gentleman coming in here that would get rather loud and have comments quite often,” Todd said. 

He explained that the outbursts were continuing, becoming more frequent and disruptive. The final straw, according to Todd, was when he shouted, “We’ll see you in court” during a discussion on litigation over a secret vote. 

“That’s why I brought it up, to stop it, and I think it has,” Todd said. “I think by now I’m okay with it coming off.” 

Wagoner agreed, but said that the board should have copies of the statute in case of disruptive behavior.

The statute states the following: “If any public meeting is willfully disrupted by a person or group of persons so as to render the orderly conduct of the meeting unfeasible, and order cannot be restored by the removal of the person or persons who are willfully interrupting the meeting, the governing body of an agency may order the removal of the person or group from the meeting room and continue in session, or may recess the meeting and reconvene at another location. Only matters appearing on the agenda may be acted upon in a meeting recessed to another location. A governing body of an agency shall establish procedures for readmitting an individual or individuals not responsible for disturbing the conduct of a meeting. Duly accredited members of the press or other news media except those who participated in a disturbance shall be allowed to attend any meeting permitted by this section.”

Taylor agreed with Todd, but also expressed the belief that there was fault on the part of the board as well that led to the tension and subsequent outburst.

“We need to step up as a board. Let’s do this better. I think we have the ability to do that,” Taylor said. 

Commissioner Borton supported Taylor, and added that singling out the part of the open meetings statute that holds the public accountable “hits me in a bad way,” and that sentiment was echoed by a member of the public in attendance. 

Walter Sprague, a self-identified Republican, pointed out that discussion among the other county Republicans touched on how “singled out” they felt. He noted that there are at least two full pages of open meeting requirements listed in statute, and that a majority of those address what the board should and shouldn’t be doing, not the public.

The other new commissioner expressed distaste for the warning as well, and indicated her support for removing it from the agenda

“I agree with taking it off. It has been a sore spot sitting out there (with the public),” Huber said. “It rubs people the wrong way.”

After the discussion, the board decided to remove the statute from the agenda, and indicated that copies of the open meetings law would be printed and available in case they are needed. 

 

Technology issues

Holding government meetings via Zoom became a routine practice during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Weston County Commissioners have lagged behind other boards in adopting the practice and members of the public continue to report problems with access and ability to participate in county meetings online. 

The Weston County Hospital District and the Weston County School District No. 1 boards began conducting their meetings virtually during the pandemic, and have continued to use a hybrid version that allows members of the public to participate in a meeting from anywhere if they can’t attend in person. 

The commissioners did not begin holding their meetings with a Zoom option until mid-2022, and their venture into the virtual world has come with its share of hiccups. Parties interested in attending or participating in meetings remotely (including the News Letter Journal) have consistently encountered technical difficulties, including getting “kicked off” a virtual meeting, having trouble hearing those speaking during the meeting or not being able to access the meeting at all. 

Taylor suggested that the board invite the county’s technology providers to attend a meeting to discuss how they can streamline the process, solve the issues and improve the overall quality of the online meeting option.

However, another elected official resisted the request to have the contractors appear at a meeting to discuss the issues directly, and argued that nothing more should be done to improve the quality of online meeting attendance for the public.

“Let’s get checked out by the professional so we are all on the same page. I appreciate the efforts to make it work, but there are issues every meeting. That is a fact,” Taylor said. 

County Clerk Becky Hadlock asserted that she had already had the courthouse internet increased to the largest possible bandwidth, and then challenged Taylor to provide solutions by asking where he would like the camera to be repositioned for a better view. 

“I don’t know. It has just been a problem since we got it. I am not picking on anyone here. I’m just saying it needs to be addressed,” Taylor said, but Hadlock then suggested that the issues are more likely the result of technology issues or user error on the part of the individuals trying to watch the meetings. 

But Commissioner Huber confessed that she has always had issues with the online meeting option, and a person in attendance at the meeting then said that they have never been able to access the meeting virtually. 

Huber also suggested that the board consider providing microphones to everyone who is speaking so it is easier for remote attendees to hear what is said. She noted that she has had issues hearing people talking to the board, not only online but while sitting in the meeting room itself, but Hadlock said that most of that information is not intended for the public. 

“They are here for the board, not the public,” Hadlock said.

”But the public has the right to hear,” Taylor responded, but Hadlock’s arguments stood as the commissioners took no action on Taylor’s request to have the county’s contractor speak to the board publicly about technology issues at the courthouse. 

Despite Taylor’s long list of recommendations, no official decisions were made on any of them. 

Wagoner was chosen the chairman of the board on a 3-2 vote. Todd nominated Wagoner, stating that he was the most senior member of the board. Voting for Wagoner were Todd and Huber. Borton, who nominated Taylor for chairman, voted for Taylor, who voted for himself. Wagoner broke the tie with a vote for himself. 

Todd was then elected vice chairman on a 3-2 vote. 

 

For a full recording of the Weston County commissioners board meeting, please visit the News Letter Journal YouTube page.

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