Guest Column: Winnebago County Board vs. our First Amendment right
By Nichole Larison Sammon
Fox Ridge Subdivison Resident
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, a part of the Bill of Rights, prohibits the making of any law that would abridge the freedom of speech, infringe on the freedom of the press, and interfere with our right to peaceably assemble or prohibit the petitioning to our government our grievances.
This sacred right we as citizens possess has been unbeknownst to Winnebago County citizens voted away by the Winnebago County Board. Dec. 1, 2008, Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen and the Winnebago County Board voted to take away our First Amendment right to speak to the county board about legal or zoning issues.
How did they possibly vote away our right? The board simply voted in new Winnebago County Board “rules of order and procedures.”
Right after Christiansen was reaffirmed the county board chairman in the 2008 elections and before the new board members could be given the oath of office, the county board voted on a major change to our rights as citizens of Winnebago County. This all occurred during a season of family affairs and vacation dreams, and then the county forgot to post the new rule on the website or notify the media. To get a copy of the “new” procedures, one must go into the County Clerk’s office and request a copy.
The original 1996 version is still available on the county website for comparison. The section on limitation of debate states “non-members (non-board members) may address the board if written request is submitted to the county board office by 12 p.m. the day of the board meeting for which recognition is sought. The written request must identify the name of the speaker, specify the subject matter the speaker will address, and indicate the speaker’s interest in the subject.” (Res. No. 96-CR-253, 12-2-96). A 3-minute time limit for the speech is also recorded.
The 2008 version added the following limitation, “Speakers cannot address zoning items, personnel matters, or pending or threatened litigation involving the County.” The last section, “pending or threatened litigation,” pretty much covers any topic one might want to speak to at the county board meeting. Can we not potentially sue the county on any topic in this country? Not saying one might win, but you could file suit.
In my own dealings with the county, I was advised from multiple angles to avoid attempting to even fill out the form to speak at our county board meeting. I even received this e-mail from Christiansen himself stating: “Pursuant to state laws, only testimony and evidence presented at the Zoning Board of Appeals hearings can be considered by county board members when voting on any zoning petition. Hopefully, you were able to appear at a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing and share your thoughts at that time.”
First of all, it is important to note the limitation on addressing zoning items added by our county in 2008 is not a state law, as Christiansen asserts. It is a Winnebago County procedure.
Boone County right next door doesn’t make you fill out a form by noon and make you wait to know whether you will get the privilege to speak to your own representatives. Boone County allows you to show up at the meeting, sign a sheet, and wait for the public comment section of the meeting. Boone County leadership obviously understands the reason they are in office — the citizens of Boone County put them there and pay for their salaries.
In Winnebago County, we have leadership working hard to make sure we cannot speak to the county board on any relevant topic unless we happen to have friends in important places.
In 2009, after this law was changed, 40 percent of the citizens who signed up to speak at the county board were denied their First Amendment right to speak to their elected officials. In 2010 and 2011, the rate went down as word got around it was not worth taking the time to fill out the form, to only get denied. Why take the time to drive to the administration building by noon, pay for parking, fill out the form, and write your whopping 3-minute speech, only to get denied?
You might be asking yourself who gets the final say on whether your topic falls under the limitations: zoning items, personnel matters, or pending or threatened litigation involving the county. Christiansen is the sole decider on whether you will be allowed to speak in your county board meeting for 3 minutes.
Three minutes is less than a commercial break on TV. This has been in place for three years and not posted on the Winnebago County website. For three years, Christiansen has been denying citizens their First Amendment right to speak on our grievances, without letting the greater populace know the reason behind it.
What can any citizen possibly convey with words in 3 minutes that warrants changing the law? Who suggested this change? Which county board members voted on this important change? The record only shows a voice vote was taken and NO names were scribed. Why was this version not posted on the Winnebago County website for three years? Surely, it could have been posted on the web at the same time regular meeting minutes were posted on the website multiple times a month for the past three years.
This is not democratic; it is oppressive, and is in the line of tyrannical. I expect more from my representatives in government.
Please reach out to the chairman directly to give your feedback. According to the Winnebago County website, “If at any time you have questions or comments on how we can better serve you, please contact our office at (815) 319-4225 or CountyBoardChairmansOfficefirstname.lastname@example.org”.
Remember to vote. Scott Christiansen and the current county board members are not the only choice. There are so many new faces running this year. Get to know them. Find the trust worthy ones in the mix.
March 20 is your next chance to vote in the Republican primary elections for this county and state. Mark your calendars now.
From the Feb. 1-7, 2012, issue