OATH KEEPERS STAND UP TO COMMISSIONER CHERRYL WALKER
by Margaret Goodwin
May 22, 2014
Chairwoman Walker Lashes Back
A curious thing happened at the Josephine County Board of Commissioners’ Weekly Business Session on May 15. Click here to see the video posted on the county’s web site. (The incident described begins at 10:15 in the timeline.)
A group of citizens who belong to the local chapter of Oath Keepers attended the meeting. Oath Keepers is a national organization of people who have taken an oath to uphold and defend the US Constitution, either in the military, the police, the National Guard, or some other branch of public service. Unlike many public officials, they feel bound to honor that oath.
During the citizens' comment period, three people got up to petition the BCC to take action on the road closures on public lands. Each time one of them got up to testify, the Oath Keepers in the audience all stood up, which is part of their tradition. After the second speaker, BCC Chairwoman Cherryl Walker instructed everybody to remain seated, saying “You got the point, so just please stay in your seats. Thank you.”
The third citizen to offer testimony was Jack Swift, a local attorney who had presented the original request to the BCC in January for a resolution regarding road closures. Mr. Swift began “Back in January,” when Chairwoman Walker cut him short. With a palpable edge of anger in her voice, she once again directed the audience to sit down. “Please be seated. There are other people in the room, including the people in the back who cannot see.” Someone in the audience asked “Where are they?” (It can be seen in the video that most of the seats are empty and nobody’s sight lines are blocked.)
Chairwoman Walker continued, with the edge in her voice getting sharper, “Would you please be seated. -- You have a right to speak, but I'm asking you to be seated. This is an audience; this is a board meeting, and I'm asking you to be seated.”
After a moment of silence, Chairwoman Walker stood up and stepped over to the meeting recorder, then returned to her seat and declared purposefully “I'm going to make a statement here. You're all here to make a point about the roads. We've had these in legal counsel; we've had discussion with these. Commissioner Hare has taken it the AOC. We have been working on this. Nothing happens overnight. We have been trying to gather as much data as possible on this issue so that we can act correctly and within the law. We are hoping to have something taken care of by the end of the month that we'd be able to come to you with an answer, or a plan, or some kind of response to your request.”
The Oath Keepers remained standing. They were not disruptive. They maintained a respectful silence throughout the proceedings. Nevertheless, Chairwoman Walker grew more and more frustrated as she ordered them to sit, and they continued to silently stand.
She took a deep breath and started speaking slowly, with exaggerated patience, gradually becoming more strident. “This is a public meeting. Everyone is welcome to come to this public meeting, and one of the rules is that you must be seated in this building so that others can see. -- Now, granted, Mr. Matthews, we don't have a written wri - wri - writing that says you have to be seated. But, up here, the rules are made by the Board. If you're standing, and there are other people at the back of the room that cannot see, that is rude! So - so I am going to ask you one more time to be seated at this meeting.”
After another moment of silence, she abruptly banged the gavel and snapped “We're adjourned." Then she stood up, gathered her things, and left.
As noted above, Chairwoman Walker made an assertion that “one of the rules is that you must be seated in this building.” Apparently recalling a similar episode a few months ago, she quickly rationalized “Now, granted, Mr. Matthews, we don't have a written writing that says you have to be seated. But, up here, the rules are made by the Board.”
It’s true that there is no written rule that prohibits people from standing during a meeting. And it’s true that the Board of Commissioners can establish rules pertaining to their meetings. But, to prevent the rules from seeming arbitrary and capricious, they should be consistent from one meeting to the next, and they should be either published or announced at the beginning of the meeting, rather than being made up on the fly.
The incident to which Chairwoman Walker was referring when she addressed Mr. Matthews was also a case in which she made up a rule on the fly. On that occasion, she was challenged by Dale Matthews. Mr. Matthews is a private citizen who has been videotaping public meetings for many years and posting excerpts from them on the Internet.
One week after Cherryl Walker was appointed Chair of the Board of Commissioners, she informed Mr. Matthews that he could not use a tripod to videotape Weekly Business Sessions. Click here to see the video of this session on the county’s web site. The relevant segment begins at 12:50 on the timeline. Mr. Matthews’ video of the incident can be seen here.
Tripods are standard equipment for videographers because hand held footage is generally too shaky to be usable. Chairwoman Walker’s justification was “If there is an emergency, and somebody jumps up, and that thing falls in the aisle, we could trip and hurt someone or delay exit from this building.”
There’s an exit at the rear of the building and one at the right front corner. Mr. Matthews was sitting in the front row on the left. For someone to trip over Mr. Matthews’ tripod, they would have to be moving away from both exits. Nevertheless, Chairwoman Walker asserted “The rules are you have to hold (the camera) in your lap.” Mr. Matthews requested to see the rules. (Commissioner Keith Heck interjected that the rules are in the office but, in fact, there was no such rule at that time.)
Chairwoman Walker’s response was “You will either do it, or we will call the police.” After another moment, she banged her gavel and snapped “We're in recess.” She did call the police, and three police officers were dispatched to handle the “disturbance.”
After interviewing the parties involved, the police concluded that no law had been broken. Later that week, Chairwoman Walker requested legal counsel to draft an ordinance regarding cameras in public meetings.
This time, at the May 15 Weekly Business Session, Chairwoman Walker did not call the police. Nor has she (to the best of my knowledge) requested legal counsel to draft an ordinance about standing up in public meetings.
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However, she did retaliate by summarily eliminating the public comment period from future Weekly Business Sessions. Under Chairwoman Walker’s new rules, citizens may make requests only, no comments, and the requests will be referred to staff or scheduled for future discussion. Citizens will no longer be granted the traditional three minutes to speak their piece. The request period will be at the end of the session, so there will be no opportunity for any public input on agenda items to be decided by the Board.
Is this acceptable to the citizens of Josephine County? Time will tell.