A Johnson County, Kansas commissioner has resorted to asking for community volunteers to video public comments at commission meetings, after the new chairman banned them from the government feed.
Charlotte O’Hara, District 3 commissioner, said new commission chair Mike Kelly’s decision to remove public comments from the livestreams was authoritarian and unwarranted. She had volunteers – who she said are civic-minded residents from Osawatomie – make a video of public comments at a recent commission meeting for posting on Rumble.com.
But she’ll undoubtedly need a cadre of volunteers to keep the labor-intensive videoing going forward – even if it’s just done with a cellphone.
The Heartlander asked O’Hara why it’s so important that ordinary people addressing the commission are shown online.
“Well, who’s paying the bills? Who are we representing?” she said. “Here’s my greatest fear, is that our local government, and even our state government, is becoming a ‘corporate-ocracy’ instead of a representative republic for the people.
“We continue to give hundreds of millions, into the billions, of dollars away to wealthy developers. And when you shut the public out, and you are focusing on all of these tax incentives, which is taking money from the people, where are your priorities?”
O’Hara and two other commissioners also take issue with how the public comments ban was implemented – with an executive decision by Kelly alone. O’Hara says he claims the power to do so by his role “officiating” commission meetings.
“This is stretching officiating into policy-making,” she says.
Moreover, when commissioners wanted to overturn his decision he initially ruled their motion out of order. In a second swipe at it, the commission voted 4-3 not to overturn his decision.
Kelly based the livestreaming ban, reports The Sentinel, on a warning from YouTube “that its community guidelines were violated last year by a resident’s allegations, during public comment time, of fraud in the 2020 presidential election. (Kelly) warned subsequent violations could lead to the county losing the YouTube channel.”
In effect, residents of Johnson County apparently are not allowed to question elections, O’Hara says.
In addition, Kelly says the ban on livestreaming public comments also is meant to provide for better decorum – another point O’Hara takes strong issue with.
“Doing the business of a representative republic sometimes is messy,” she tells The Heartlander. “When you have the people participating, yes, it’s going to be messy. But so what? Look at the process of our government in Washington. It’s not always pretty. If you want perfection, I guess you want tyranny.”
Commissioner Michael Ashcraft has requested the matter be added to the Jan. 26 agenda by the chairman at the commission meeting Thursday. Asked why, when there were only three votes out of seven to overturn the ban previously, O’Hara said the outcome might be different now with public knowledge of the action.
But in any case, she said, it’s important to get each of the seven commissioners on the record on the issue.
“It’s very valuable to get each individual commissioner on record as to where they stand on this issue,” she said. “Do they support transparency, or are they in support of Chairman Kelly’s tyranny of one?
“I find it fascinating that Chairman Kelly does not want this issue of livestreaming public comments to come up for a vote. There can only be two reasons in my mind: 1) is he protecting the commissioners who agree with him from any political fallout from this?; or 2) is he so entrenched in his quest for power that he simply does not want to be challenged? I don’t know. But this is so contrary to the (county) Charter.”
O’Hara said unfortunately Johnson County isn’t alone in banning livestreams of public comments. She says Olathe City Council and the Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley school districts do, as well. Olathe even holds public comments until the end of its often long meetings.
“All that is to discourage people from participating, and that is not what we need,” she says.
The Heartlander asked Chairman Kelly: Can Johnson Countians no longer express opinions about elections and election integrity in commission meetings online? And is that a policy that should be set by YouTube or by elected leaders?
As for decorum, The Heartlander asked Kelly if democracy isn’t inherently robust and disheveled.
The Heartlander also asked him why he tried to prohibit even a vote on livestreaming, and whether he would allow such a vote to be put on an upcoming agenda.
Until the government feed of public comments is restored, O’Hara says she will continue in her efforts to livestream them with citizen help.
“Absolutely, absolutely. And I’m sure that there will always be somebody in the audience that will be livestreaming (meetings) on Facebook.
“People want their voice to be heard, whether they’re conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat, libertarian, unaffiliated.”