For more than 30 minutes, citizens of Stark County peacefully protested, disrupted and verbally confronted Stark County Commissioners during their regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday morning. The entire event was captured on multiple Facebook livestreams and broadcast to more than 2,500 views.
The disruptions to the proceedings came after an announcement appeared on the Stark County website in the days leading up to the Stark County Commission meeting restricting access to all future county meetings as coronavirus cases have spiked in the county. Stark County is one of eight counties in North Dakota currently classified as yellow (moderate risk) level on the state's coronavirus alert system.
According to the announcement, only county employees and public news media would be permitted to be present at county meetings and all citizens were encouraged to listen to the proceeding via teleconference — Stark County does not broadcast their meetings to the public.
The decision by the county to restrict physical access was in keeping with a previously ratified policy, passed unanimously by the commission, to adhere to recommendations established by state and local health officials from Southwestern District Health Unit, North Dakota Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Guidelines concerning public meetings while in the yellow level.
The meeting began quietly until the pledge of allegiance concluded, at which point the meeting was quickly disrupted by more than a dozen citizens entering the doorway to the commission meeting room and filling the hallway beyond. The citizens engaged with commissioners on the “infringement of their civil liberties and rights” by being barred from attendance at a public government meeting.
Stark County State’s Attorney Tom Henning and Commission Chairman Pete Kuntz called for order in the meeting and asked that the Sheriff have the disruptive and non-permitted parties removed from the commission room in accordance with the policy. Before any action was taken on the request, a citizen asked and was granted permission to approach the microphone in the center of the room to address the commission directly by Commissioner Ken Zander.
“This is a public building, correct? Paid for by the people, correct? Is this a law you are enforcing or is this a policy or guideline that you are enforcing?” Farren Richard, a Stark County resident, asked.
Henning acknowledged that the decision to remove the protesters was a policy adopted by the county in accordance with guidelines received from the Southwestern District Health Unit, but not a law.
“So this is not law?” Richard asked.
“No, this is only the worst health situation that has occurred in the world since 1918,” Henning began, before multiple other protesters interjected that Henning was “parroting propaganda not based in science.”
Banter from the crowd grew in intensity after one citizen began yelling at the commissioners “Do you understand that the taxpayers pay your salaries?” while another yelled, “You guys should be embarrassed, you really should.” A third woman cited the fatality rate of the coronavirus at 0.2% and called the elected leaders “ignorant to science.”
Sheriff Corey Lee and other deputies quickly moved to deescalate the situation, calming the crowd momentarily as Richard continued.
“The thing is that this is a building for the people, paid for by the people and you are elected officials of the people. We are taxpayers of this county and if you want to remove the people that pay the bills, I guess you are going to need a legal reason to remove us,” he said.
With heightened tensions mounting, Commissioners Zander and Carla Arthaud motioned and seconded to allow 20 citizens to attend the meeting, so long as they agreed to adhere to social distancing. Zander added that he would request that they also wear masks.
The request to wear masks escalated the situation again, prompting all in attendance to vocally refuse the request. With order temporarily restored by Sheriff deputies, the commissioners voted unanimously to rescind the requirement for masks and allowed 20 citizens to attend the meeting.
The remainder of the meeting passed uneventfully. The remainder of the meeting centered on the 2021 preliminary budget, which is covered in THIS story.