By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Despite being slated as an executive session item to be discussed at the end of a packed agenda, Bonner County commissioners at their business meeting Feb. 7 jumped right into discussing the potential end of Zoom video streaming access to public meetings and hearings.
Commissioner Asia Williams argued that the item should be discussed publicly.
“I don’t see how discussing whether or not to discontinue Zoom is appropriate in an executive session,” she said, noting that more than 25 people were participating in the meeting via the streaming platform, which allows viewers to make public testimony remotely and in real time.
Williams began to quote Idaho Code surrounding executive sessions before Commissioner Luke Omodt called for a “point of order,” which Commissioner Steve Bradshaw recognized as chair of the board.
“‘Point of order’ isn’t used to silence a commissioner,” Williams said.
“Commissioner Williams, I’ve brought it to a point of order,” Bradshaw replied. “Comment is through.”
Bonner County Deputy Prosecutor Bill Wilson testified that because the discussion of whether or not to keep Zoom meetings would include his opinion, which would fall under attorney-client privilege, it was a “discretionary” call by the board whether or not to hold that discussion in executive session.
During her District 2 Commissioner Report, Williams encouraged the public to “express their issues and concerns during public comment” regarding the possible ending of Zoom meetings, and particularly whether that discussion belonged in executive session.
She went on to read written comments from several constituents opposed to ending Zoom access — comments that only continued during the meeting’s hour-long public comment period. Proponents of continued access cited some residents’ inability to travel to hearings due to weather, transportation issues, time crunches, age and health problems, as well as their desire to avoid the packed meeting rooms at the county building.
Bradshaw weighed in during public comment, saying it would be “foolish” to go against legal advice, after which Williams confirmed with Wilson that he was not advising the executive session. When Clerk Mike Rosedale took to the mic to tell the board he believed executive session was appropriate for the discussion, Williams attempted to ask follow-up questions before being cut off by Omodt.
“Commissioner Williams, for someone who is so focused on following the agenda, how about we try it. That would be lovely,” he said, prompting disapproving remarks from meeting attendees throughout the remainder of public comment, including several statements about the alleged “disrespect” Omodt and Bradshaw had displayed toward Williams. Shari Dovale of right-wing blog Redoubt News called it a “sexist issue.”
Many people urged the commissioners to have the discussion publicly about whether to keep the Zoom option. Ultimately, because the board adopted the order of the agenda with a 2-1 vote, that discussion took place in executive session. However, in order to vote on the item, the meeting was reopened.
Upon reconvening publicly, Bradshaw explained that Bonner County could face legal repercussions by offering Zoom participation should technical difficulties occur, rendering entire meetings void or opening the door to litigation from someone who wasn’t able to speak or to hear all of the testimony.
“That would boggle [sic] down government — not make it more efficient and streamlined,” Bradshaw said.
“If we made decisions on, ‘Somebody might sue us,’ we would cease to be a public institution,” Williams rebutted. “We owe our community the availability to participate, and if that availability comes with a risk, we must assess the risk.”
Omodt said he wished to avoid any litigation associated with the continued use of Zoom in favor of channeling county funds toward public safety and infrastructure.
“I firmly believe this is in the best interest of the county, and I’m happy to say, on the record, where I think the priority should be,” he said, adding later: “I’m happy to have this opportunity to put my vote where my mouth is.”
Williams suggested including a disclaimer on agendas to mitigate any legal risk associated with offering Zoom, but the board did not take up that suggestion. Despite public testimony entirely against eliminating Zoom access, Omodt and Bradshaw voted in favor of a motion to end it while Williams voted against.
County officials later confirmed with the Reader that YouTube live streaming of each meeting would remain available on the Bonner County YouTube channel. However, viewers on YouTube can only watch the action, and are not able to participate in the same way that Zoom allows.
Linscott appointed, land use commissions remain separate
Also at the Feb. 7 business meeting, Planning Director Jacob Gabell proposed appointing Matt Linscott to the Planning Commission to fill one of two vacancies on the volunteer board. Linscott would be making the move from his current position on the Zoning Commission.
Gabell said the county currently has four or five candidates who have applied for those open seats who are waiting to be interviewed.
“Previously, it sometimes takes months to get a pool of two or three [applicants],” he said. “Recently, we have a lot more folks interested in applying and volunteering on the Planning Commission.”
Linscott’s appointment sparked discussion about whether the board’s current members comprise an accurate representation of Bonner County as a whole.
“Although there may not be a requirement, there is an expectation in the code that we are representing the different areas of Bonner County,” Williams said, asking Gabell what districts of the county are currently represented on the commission. He said he did not have that information in front of him at the time.
“This is a highly visible section in the county government — one that we have a lot of involvement in,” Williams continued, “and it is best served if we use people from a diverse background from the various districts, even if you’re not required to.”
Public comment leaned heavily toward tabling Linscott’s appointment. Several attendees made note that most members of each land use commission are builders or real estate agents — including Linscott, who works as a realtor — with personal interests in development. Many argued that Linscott’s appointment should be considered after the board decided whether or not to recombine the two commissions, which it addressed later at the Feb. 7 meeting.
Following the comments, Omodt and Bradshaw voted to appoint Linscott, while Williams voted against the motion.
Commissioners later took up a proposal from Williams to recombine the Planning and Zoning commissions, which were separated in March 2022 in the interest of freeing up more time to update the Bonner County Comprehensive Plan. Since then, the county has hired a hearing examiner, which Williams and several community members argue has all but eliminated work for the Zoning Commission.
Bradshaw said he couldn’t support recombining the split commissions based on advice he gleaned from an ethics training at the Idaho Association of Counties conference held the first week of February in Boise.
“Had everybody went to that class, then this would not be a question,” Bradshaw said, clearly referring to Williams.
While all three commissioners attended the IAC conference, Williams told the Reader in a follow-up interview that she had coordinated with Omodt in order to avoid overlap in class attendance and ensure board members brought back a variety of knowledge. In the screenshot of a text message, Omodt said he would be attending the ethics training, to which Williams replied: “Thank you. I’ll attend a different workshop.”
Williams made a motion to rejoin the Planning and Zoning commissions, but that motion died without a second from either Omodt or Bradshaw.
Motion to change agendizing policy dies
In another item taken up at the Feb. 7 meeting, Bonner County Human Resources brought forth a proposed amendment to workplace conduct policy. It was the second time the proposal had come before the commissioners after it was tabled on a split vote Jan. 24, with Omodt moving that a workshop be held with HR and all three board members.
The amendment would require the board to formulate future agenda items in a public setting as a means to “minimize the risk of secret ‘deliberation’ occurring in the agenda-setting process.” It would also eliminate the possibility of a department head consulting with only one commissioner on future county business.
Williams, who drafted the new policy language, said at the Jan. 24 meeting that the change was meant to keep board members from being “blindsided” and increase county transparency.
Bradshaw maintained at the Feb. 7 meeting that Bonner County’s current agendizing and open meeting policies follow state code.
“I will entertain a motion to deny this, because we have no intention of changing state law,” he said. “It’s not broken; it does not need to be fixed.”
Omodt asked Human Resources Director Cindy Binkerd whether a workshop had been held to discuss the proposed policy change. Binkerd said that upon consulting with legal advisors, she determined a workshop wasn’t necessary for the amendment.
Williams made a motion to approve the amendment, but without a second, her motion died.
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