Bonner County meetings remain closed to Zoom

Public comment limits, outside legal training at forefront of another contentious county meeting

By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Reader Staff

The regular Tuesday business meeting of the Bonner County commissioners began Feb. 14 with a strong statement from Chairman Steve Bradshaw, who said that the county is “not required by law to allow comment or discussion” during business meetings.

“However, the previous board thought that it was best if we hear from the public because we work for you,” he said. “If at any time it gets out of hand I will close all public comment. Any derogatory innuendos, personal attacks or anything that’s considered aggressive — you won’t get a warning. You’ll be asked to leave.”

If those asked to leave chose not to, Bradshaw said, Sandpoint police would be asked to escort the offenders from the meeting room.

Bonner County Commissioners Luke Omodt, left, Asia Williams, center, Steve Bradshaw, far right. Courtesy photo.

“We’re not going to have the meeting hijacked anymore,” he added, noting that he would only allow 12 total minutes of public comment. Public comment at the Feb. 7 meeting lasted for more than an hour.

The Feb. 14 meeting drew comment from Samuels resident Kathy Rose, who said she would “exercise her right to criticize” and share her “grievances.” 

“I knew there would be tension on this new board, but I never thought it would be such blatant disrespect — disrespect among yourselves and disrespect for the people who elected you,” she said, echoing comments from past meetings by constituents alleging disrespect displayed by Bradshaw and Commissioner Luke Omodt toward Commissioner Asia Williams.

Rose went on to urge more transparency from the board and made allegations about past “backroom dealings.”

“I’ll remind you to mind your accusations,” Bradshaw interjected, to which Rose replied that it was her “time to speak.”

“Your time is granted by the chair,” Bradshaw continued. “You have whatever I give you.”

His last comment prompted booing from the packed audience at the meeting, which took place downstairs in the county building’s largest conference room in order to accommodate the regularly increasing Tuesday meeting attendance.

Also during public comment, Sheriff Daryl Wheeler made a plea for “big change” in the new board’s actions.

“Right now, there’s a fork in the road. We can either continue the way we’ve been going or we can change,” he said. 

“As an elected official, I want to tell you that I have been embarrassed at the lack of decorum that has happened in these meetings, especially against our commissioner in District 2,” Wheeler continued, referring to Williams. “I pray that there is going to be a real change in professionalism, and the code of conduct is followed by all of us in the county, including the commissioners.”

Over the course of the two-hour meeting, agenda items presented by Williams and Omodt accounted for the bulk of the discussion. The first was a proposal from Williams to include a disclaimer on agendas for county meetings that would offer the option to watch and participate on the Zoom streaming platform — an option eliminated during the Feb. 7 meeting with votes from Omodt and Bradshaw, as those commissioners shared concerns about the legal risk of offering the option to testify on a platform that could disfunction. 

In part, Williams’ proposed disclaimer read: “Use of the Zoom link is not intended as a substitute for in-person or written participation in the proceedings of county business. It is possible to have technology issues with the Zoom link to include, but not limited to, difficulty hearing and being heard. If you have information to communicate to the county, please come in person or send your information in writing. … Use of Zoom is at the risk of the user…”

Williams also shared the feedback she received from Deputy Prosecutor Bill Wilson, who said the disclaimer was “well-written” but would not entirely eliminate risk. Williams went on to argue that offering the Zoom option would best align with the county’s code surrounding meeting participation and accommodating disabilities.

“As a public entity, we will never be able to remove all the risk,” she said, later adding: “The argument to discontinue Zoom solely based on an inherent risk that exists with a public entity is a specious argument.”

While YouTube streaming of county meetings remains available, Williams argued that because those watching on YouTube are not able to participate in the same way Zoom allows, YouTube does not fulfill the county’s codified goal of increasing public participation.

Williams made a motion to approve the disclaimer. Rather than seconding, Omodt moved to table the disclaimer until he could hear “directly” from county legal counsel. His motion also did not draw a second.

“This is a business meeting — not a public-interaction, ‘let’s-have-a-conversation’ meeting,” Bradshaw said, doubling down on his comments from earlier in the meeting about state law not requiring commissioners to allow comments during business meetings. 

Because both motions on the Zoom disclaimer died, Bradshaw did not open public comment, which prompted dissatisfaction from meeting attendee Dan Rose. Bradshaw then trespassed him from the meeting, stating as Rose walked out, “Don’t force my hand.”

Later, under items brought to the agenda by Omodt, the board considered contracting the outside law firm Davillier Law Group to design and implement a training program for members of volunteer boards and commissions throughout the county. 

“What is apparent to me is that we have room to improve in how we are operating as boards and commissions,” he said, inviting attorney Mauricio Cardona to present on the training program.

Davillier Law, which secured updated retainer agreements with Bonner County in July 2022, served as representation during the county’s failed lawsuit against the city of Sandpoint and Festival at Sandpoint regarding the Festival’s policy against firearms at the annual concert series. The New Orleans-based firm, with offices in Sandpoint and Phoenix, has also drawn national attention for its involvement in high-profile cases like the fight against Bears Ears National Monument in Utah; legal challenges to federal masking laws during the COVID-19 pandemic; and litigation related to questioning “election integrity” surrounding the 2020 presidential election — particularly in Arizona.

Williams argued that hiring an outside law firm would be “disingenuous” and “circumvent what our money has already paid for, which is the county prosecutor.”

“I would like our prosecuting attorney to focus on prosecuting criminals,” Omodt said, noting that he’d already spoken about the prospective training program with the prosecutor’s office.

The Reader asked Omodt in a follow-up email why he’d chosen a third-party law firm for the project and why, specifically, he’d chosen Davillier with its headline-making background. He did not respond before press time.

Cardona said that Davillier Law had not yet billed Bonner County for this work, and what was being discussed Feb. 14 was only a “proposal.”

Omodt moved to engage Davillier Law in designing and implementing a board training program. The motion saw a second from Bradshaw. 

Public comment was largely against hiring Davillier to do the work, with many encouraging the board to obtain training resources from the county’s own legal counsel. Still, the motion passed with a 2-1 vote. Williams cast the lone vote in opposition.

Stream Bonner County commissioner meetings weekly on the Bonner County YouTube channel each Tuesday at 9 a.m. Meetings are held at the Bonner County Administration Building, 1500 Highway 2 in Sandpoint.

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