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Public input section of Ramsey County Commission meeting removed

DEVILS LAKE--Residents who wanted to ask questions or air grievances to the Ramsey County Commission won't be able to comment at public meetings anymore after the board chairwoman removed the item from the agenda, citing the comments as "disrupti...

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Screenshot, May 17 meeting of the Ramsey County Commission

DEVILS LAKE-Residents who wanted to ask questions or air grievances to the Ramsey County Commission won't be able to comment at public meetings anymore after the board chairwoman removed the item from the agenda, citing the comments as "disruptive."

The visitors and delegations portion of the meeting, which has been on the agenda for years, allowed residents up to five minutes to address the commission toward the end of the meeting. But the item was removed from the June 7 agenda and hasn't reappeared.

Chairwoman Myrna Heisler said she had removed the item after discussing the matter with State's Attorney Lonnie Olson, who was unavailable for comment.

"Visitors and delegations are no where in the legal description of a meeting," she said during the meeting, referring to North Dakota Century Code. "I'm not sure when it was started with Ramsey County, but it has become so disruptive that I, as chair(woman), chose to take it off the agenda at this time. When the next chairman goes on board, they are more than welcome to revisit it."

The move comes after a May 17 meeting when Heisler got into a heated exchange with Devils Lake resident Jessica Ramey-Gillam, who has addressed the commission about concerns of inmate treatment at the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center. The LEC has been a contentious subject among residents after it has faced several challenges in recent years, including jail escapes, decreasing funds due to falling inmate numbers and claims of misconduct.

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Paul Deegan, whose wife, Denny, filed a discrimination complaint in September 2014 against the LEC after she was fired from there as an operations administrator in August 2014, has spoken several times during the visitors and delegation section of the meeting. Aside from asking Deegan questions and informing him he should attend LEC meetings to cite his concerns, the commission has not responded to Deegan's concerns, citing legal advice.

Heisler was speaking to Deegan during the May 17 meeting when she stopped to address Ramey-Gillam, who at the meeting also criticized the board and LEC prior to Deegan addressing the commissioners. A video of the meeting posted on the county's YouTube channel shows Heisler addressing Ramey-Gillam, who was sitting off camera.

"If you're having a problem, dear, Jessica, please leave," Heisler said during the meeting. "This is very serious business. You laughing is not appropriate."

Ramey-Gillam stood up and came into the camera's view, emphasizing that she is a resident of the county and the commission serves the county.

The video shows the two trying to shout over each other until Heisler told Ramey-Gillam to stop-to which Ramey-Gillam said "no"-and pounded her gavel, asking Ramey-Gillam to sit down.

"I do not have to have someone belittling the people on this commission," Heisler said. "I resent it, and I don't feel I need to put up with it."

North Dakota Century Code states government entities must allow residents to attend meetings that are not exempt from open meeting laws, though it does not require boards allow residents to speak during the meetings.

It's not uncommon for counties to restrict public input during meetings after residents become raucous, said Jeff Eslinger, a communications manager for the North Dakota Association of Counties.

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"The proper procedure is to request time on the agenda, and then they allow that time or don't," he said, "The idea that you can just show up and go to the podium, that's not something that is required for them to allow."

Eslinger added it is the responsibility of the chairperson and auditor to set the agenda, so Heisler is allowed to remove items from it.

Heisler said she stands behind the decisions she has made, adding the visitors and delegations portion of the meeting has been used by a few residents to grandstand and that it needed to be removed to maintain order during meetings.

"I'm really sad about having to take visitors and delegations off because I enjoyed hearing from the constituency on their concerns," she said. "They're making it hard for all of the people of Ramsey County. They're making us have to follow the rules to the letter rather than allowing citizens to come in and speak."

Deegan said he is not surprised by the removal of the visitors and delegations portion of the meeting because he thought the commission would eventually cut him off.

"Just because you can, doesn't mean you should," he said. "I do have my own personal issues that I am trying to take on with what happened with my wife, but in the bigger scheme of things, where and in what venue does the public get heard?"

There are multiple ways to get in contact with commissioners, Commissioner Adam Leiphon said. They have their phone numbers and links to emails on Ramsey County's websites, and residents still can ask to be placed on the agenda. He said he didn't mind the visitors and delegations portion of the meeting because it allowed people to speak and bring up concerns in case they didn't know where to go to air their grievances or if they felt they weren't getting anywhere speaking with county staff. However, meetings have devolved into unregulated sessions and he understood why that portion was removed, he said.

"We're easy to get ahold of," he said.

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Commissioners Mark Olson and Ed Brown agreed Heisler had a right to remove the visitors and delegations portion from the agenda, though Commissioner Bill Mertens questioned Heisler's choice to remove it, adding he didn't think it was fair she could remove it without discussing it with the rest of the commission.

"I wanted to know how the other commissioners felt, but she took the brunt of it and said she just did it by herself because she thought it was disruptive," Mertens said.

It's unknown how long the visitors and delegations item has been on the agenda, though Leiphon said he believes it has been on the agenda for at least a decade.

The criticism has boiled as Heisler faces re-election. Hers and Mark Olson's terms are on the ballot this year, along with a third seat. In the primary election held June 14, she took fourth with 1,113 votes, or 15.1 percent, behind top vote-getter and challenger Jeff Frith, who won 2,115 votes (28.7 percent). Newcomer Scott Diseth took second with 1,424 votes (19.3 percent) and Olson topped Heisler for third place with 1,275 votes (17.3 percent). A fifth candidate, Kelsie Bye, grabbed 1,073 votes (14.6 percent).

All five, along with write-ins Ben Sanders and Lucas Wakefield, will appear on the ballot in November for the general election.

Heisler acknowledged her decisions haven't been popular and that it showed in the primaries.

"This is not a popularity contest," she said. "This is about doing what is right for the people of Ramsey County."

Though Deegan said he has been turned down by the commission to be place on the agenda, he said he will continue to ask to be placed on it so he can speak at the meetings.

"I will continue going meetings because I'm not the kind of guy that is just going to fade away," he said.

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