Douglas County leaders grapple with raucous meetings

COVID-19 response drives tense debates, disruptions

Elliott Wenzler and Jessica Gibbs
ewenzler@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 9/20/21

Several security guards and uniformed officers positioned themselves between the audience at an Aug. 24 meeting of the Douglas County School Board and the board's seats at the dais.  Confusion …

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Douglas County leaders grapple with raucous meetings

COVID-19 response drives tense debates, disruptions

Posted

Several security guards and uniformed officers positioned themselves between the audience at an Aug. 24 meeting of the Douglas County School Board and the board's seats at the dais. 

Confusion consumed the room as guards tried to clear the crowd of roughly two dozen. About half of the people left but the rest lingered, trying to figure out if they would be let in later or if the meeting was over. Guards were not sure, but they needed people to leave, they said.

Minutes earlier, the board directors had abruptly left the room

Public comment had lasted hours. One speaker after another took to the lectern, most lambasting school board directors about COVID-19 precautions in schools, including a masking mandate. 

People cheered, shouted, jumped, flashed jazz hands, stood up in support of comments they agreed with and turned their backs on speakers they disagreed with.

Throughout the meeting, Douglas County School Board President David Ray struggled to maintain order, repeatedly asking people to refrain from outbursts.

Just shy of 11 p.m. that night, Director Krista Holtzmann said she wanted to address misinformation shared about the coronavirus during public comment. She spoke for nearly a minute, urging people to rely on public health agencies when sourcing information about the pandemic, including the Tri-County Health Department. (The health agency represents Douglas, Adams and Araphoe counties, although Douglas County commissioners are seeking to leave the agency amid disputes over COVID-19 responses.)

Then audience members interjected. “You work for us, not for them,” a man said from the back of the room.

Ray, the board president, cautioned that he would take a meeting break if interruptions did not stop. But people continued talking over him.

Ray picked up his gavel and thumped the dais. The seven directors stood and walked out.

“Tri-County is lying to you and you know it,” a man called to directors as they left.

District leader reacts

The scene at DCSD's Aug. 24 board meeting was the latest in a string of public meetings, in Douglas County and elsewhere, where tensions and emotion have boiled over, often when COVID-19 precautions were the topic of discussion:

• A raucous back-to-school town hall in early August where people booed DCSD Superintendent Corey Wise over mask rules.

• A meeting where Douglas County commissioners were openly at odds about how to handle outbursts from a crowd listening to their discussions about mask mandates.

• A county hearing where attendees shouted out as commissioners made their comments.

It's happening in a traditionally conservative county where all three county commissioners and many residents often have pushed back against school mask-wearing rules and other COVID-related restrictions.

The discourse is testing public officials as they grapple with keeping decorum and giving people a space where they feel they can talk freely. For school board directors, that pressure comes as they also cope with a deluge of frustration directed squarely at them. 

At the end of the Aug. 24 school board meeting, Director Elizabeth Hanson resigned, not as director but as the board secretary, citing the strain on her mental health from processing contentious emails sent to the board. 

“The derogatory names and extreme aggression directed at board directors are some of the worst I have ever seen,” Ray told Colorado Community Media by email as she was traveling. “The task of maintaining an orderly meeting pales compared to the task of protecting others from such egregious attacks on their mental health.” 

The district has weathered comparably tough times before, Ray said, but recent meeting behavior is still unusual.

“Sadly, there is an increase nationwide of individuals disrupting school board meetings,” Ray said. “Social media sensationalizes these occurrences. In addition, there are political entities encouraging this behavior as a means to rile people up, especially in anticipation of an election.”

At times during public comment periods, community members have reacted to recent meeting conduct. While some people said they do not approve, or were surprised by how much frustrations have escalated, occasional commenters have remarked that they could empathize with parents who are fed up with pandemic precautions. 

Modeling 'inappropriate behavior'

Ray said there will always be issues that lead to disagreements, and that public comment combined with emails that board members receive show a near-even split between people who support and oppose masking requirements.

“I believe the emotional escalation of the mask issue is more of a reflection of the fatigue and extreme frustrations with enduring a global pandemic,” he said. 

Disorderly meetings can hinder directors from conducting district business, Ray said, like considering budgetary items. But decorum is about more than keeping meetings running smoothly — it's also about providing a respectful and safe environment for everyone present, he said. 

At the Aug. 24 meeting, Ray went back and forth deciding whether to allow people to stand up when they heard comments they supported. He at first called the demonstration a good nonverbal way of expressing views during the meeting.

Later he questioned whether allowing it was emboldening vocal outbursts and deterring people from sharing different views.

Ray said by email that some of the behavior — such as people stomping when they stood up or “aggressive body movements” — fell short of providing “a safe space for those who wanted to share a different perspective.”

“When there is a large number of people representing the same perspective, it is highly intimidating for someone to speak with a different perspective,” Ray said by email. “This intimidation is even more pronounced when some individuals heckle and shout disparaging things about a speaker's comment that they disagree with.” 

Ray said raucous moments left him disappointed that “adults are modeling inappropriate behavior for children,” and worried someone would be “emotionally hurt.”

He also felt anxiety “for our law enforcement who are present to protect everyone in the room.”

County commissioners' debate

Douglas County's board of commissioners ran into a similar situation at their Aug. 19 meeting where they decided to opt out of a Tri-County mask mandate for students and teachers in schools. During the first few public speakers, the audience, which filled up the hearing room and an overflow room, clapped in reaction to those supporting the opt-out. 

After it happened several times, Commissioner Lora Thomas, who was serving as the chair that day, attempted to bring order to the room.

“We really want to hear from you so we're just asking for some order in here so everybody can come up and speak, and we're not going to have clapping in here please,” she said. 

Moments later, Commissioner Abe Laydon broke in with his own perspective about the applause.

“As a point of personal privilege I'm going to ask the chair to walk back that decision. I think all of these people took their time out of their day to be here and as one commissioner, I'm OK with you expressing yourself however you'd like,” he said. 

The audience responded with more claps and shouts of “thank you.”

Then, during the rest of the meeting, attendees cheered in support of those who spoke in favor of opting out of the mask mandate and shouted out at the few speakers who spoke against it.

One speaker who opposed the county's decision to opt out of the mask mandate began her comments with “My viewpoint differs from the majority here, but it's still a valid opinion and please don't laugh, as I didn't laugh at you.”

Commissioner Thomas wrote in an email to Colorado Community Media after the meeting that the audience's “emotional outbursts” had prevented those with the minority opinion from having a fair opportunity to express their views.

“This was a public hearing for all citizens to address their government to ensure that their voices were heard. And we failed,” she wrote. “We are left to wonder how many more decided not to speak because of the hostile atmosphere in that room.”

'It's just disappointing'

Another speaker who called into the hearing virtually and spoke against the opt-out, Brian Clarke, was repeatedly interrupted by laughs and jeers during his comments to the commissioners. 

Clarke said in an interview with Colorado Community Media that he was distracted by the audience's outbursts during his comments.

“It's just disappointing. It feels like a mob mentality when you have people feeding off each other's energy. A room full of people that all agree with one another and don't want to hear anything that doesn't reinforce their position, it's just disappointing,” he said.

Commissioners also ran into struggles maintaining decorum during an April 27 meeting where Commissioners Laydon and George Teal proposed a resolution to censure Thomas over a dispute among the board members. Attendees repeatedly shouted out their reactions and comments from the gallery as the commissioners made comments from the dais.

The commissioners discussed the future of hearing room decorum during an Aug. 24 work session. 

“Historically, all boards have asked for speech to be directed to the commissioners only, to wait until it's their turn and not to have the emotion and outbursts from the audience because it is disruptive,” County Attorney Lance Ingalls said. “It can also be stifling to other people.”

Ingalls went on to say it's up to the board how they will handle hearing room decorum and Thomas asked for a specific policy on the issue going forward.

“I think there needs to be a constant, a steady rule for the whole room so that the chair is not using his or her bias to decide who can have emotional outbursts and who cannot,” she said. 

Thomas added that the state legislature does not allow applause or outbursts during testimonies.

'I would ask for respect'

Laydon defended his stance on allowing applause in the room.

“What we saw in our hearing was reflective of the level of emotion and the level of desire that our citizens have to be able to express themselves freely under the First Amendment,” Laydon said. “I think bad things happen when we decide to silence our public and tell them that our voices are more important than theirs.”

Thomas responded that asking for decorum isn't silencing anyone.

“When people are clapping and cheering and shouting down people, that is when we are inhibiting people's First Amendment rights,” she said.

Laydon pressed on, stating he believes that a certain level of applause from the audience is orderly, but that jeering and intimidation are not.

“For citizens to take a day off of work to sit in a four-hour meeting, to tell them to just sit there and be quiet, I don't know any parent in this county that's going to respond well to that. And I'm not going to be part of it,” he said.

Commissioner Teal voiced support of Laydon's point of view and the commissioners moved on from the topic.

At the start of a Sept. 7 meeting where the commissioners planned to vote on the formation of their own health department, Laydon, then serving as chair, asked for order before public comment began.

“In Douglas County we welcome freedom of speech and your opinions,” Laydon said. “I would ask for respect, order and decorum in this hearing room. We'll allow for that to occur but at any time if it is out of order or disrespectful I will call the meeting back to order.”

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