County Board considers new rules on public input

L to R: Tim Scannel, Mark Falk, Braidy Powers, Dusty Nelms, Jan Hall, Sue Hakes, Bruce Martinson.
L to R: Tim Scannel, Mark Falk, Braidy Powers, Dusty Nelms, Jan Hall, Sue Hakes, Bruce Martinson.

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The Cook County Board of Commissioners held its first meeting of the New Year on Tuesday morning, January 4th.  The first order of business was to swear in new commissioner Sue Hakes, along with several returning commissioners and county officials.  New officers were also elected, with District 1 commissioner Jan Hall promoted to vice chair and District 4 commissioner Jim Johnson taking over as chair. 

“I think the main purpose of the county chair is to run the meeting and try to stay out of sharing your opinions so much," said Johson.   "Let the other opinions surface and then sort it out.”

Johnson had to do a little sorting out when he found himself in the middle of a debate about how future county board meetings should be conducted.  County Attorney Tim Scannel suggested a change in approach to the current practice of allowing members of the public to offer input throughout commission meetings.  Scannel said the practice undermines the public process and public confidence and said he favors scaling it back.  Commissioner Sue Hakes agreed and suggested designatating a certain time for public comment, similar to how things are done at Grand Marais City Council meetings.

“I would just support an open forum in the beginning of the meeting," said Hakes, "with some constraints about it.  It would eliminate a lot of that audience thinking they can participate during our meeting and it would be more efficient and still let the public have a voice.  The other thing is, from time to time it might make sense to call on someone in the audience, maybe they have information that might be useful to the decision-making or something like that, but as a regular practice, I think that we should try and organize it a little better.”

But Commissioner Fritz Sobanja strongly disagrees.

“The freedom to allow somebody who raises their hand to say something, it can’t go… we can not just set up these strict lines in our interactions with the public, because that person may have extremely vital information to the situation at hand," said Sobanja in a later telephone interview.   "And if there’s questions, and those questions never get brought forward at a public forum, who’s going to bring them up?  It is trying to evade the public process.  This is what I really strongly feel.  I feel that some people want to control everything so badly that they're willing to suggest such ideas.  If a county commissioner sitting on the board during a meeting is in a hurry to get out of that meeting and go someplace else, then they should just get up and go someplace else."

No decision was made regarding limiting public input during commission meetings and the issue will be discussed again at a future meeting.  The County Board meets on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Tuesdays of the month at the County Courthouse in Grand Marais.  More information is available on the county website.


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