Tuesday evening’s Kenosha County Board meeting was different.

This photo shows the scene during the citizens’ comments portion of the County Board’s Sept. 8, 2020, meeting. Photo by Daniel Thompson/The Uptown Observer.

For the first time in months, people treated each other, mostly, with civility throughout the process.

In fact, Chairman John O’Day made it a point at the end of the meeting to call for civility and respect in all proceedings moving forward.

Protesters not going anywhere

To say County Board meetings have been contentious following the shooting of Jacob Blake would be an understatement.

Protesters and activists have packed many of the meetings. Each of them addressing the board with either the threat of voting them out or challenges for them to make meaningful change in areas of social justice reform.

The conflict came to a head during a meeting last month. A proposal being crafted by supervisor Terry Rose and corporation counsel was the focus of the meeting. The proposal pertained to how to address rebuilding the city in the wake of recent riots and addressing racism in the county. 

When pressed to reopen citizens’ comments due to citizens not hearing the call for them, members of the County Board Executive Committee chose to adjourn instead.

Weeks later, on Monday evening, the Kenosha City Council faced a similar situation. However, City Council President Ald. Once approved, David Bogdala chose to call for a motion and reopened public comments on the cabaret license issue in the city.

This move led aldermen to actually change their vote and refer the issue back to the committee due to the public input and perspective. 

Kenosha County Board member infighting

On the other side of the aisle at recent meetings, so to speak, at least one County Board supervisor, Erin Decker, had refused to turn towards the public except once during a recent meeting. Decker sparked outrage in a recent interview with Fox and Friends. During the interview, she said, “80 percent” of people she’s talked to in the county support Kyle Rittenhouse. 

Rittenhouse is the 17-year-old boy from Antioch, Ill., who killed Kenosha County residents Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum on Sheridan Road in the city on Aug. 25. 

The Uptown Observer also took video of board members swearing at each other in full view of the public.

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Tuesday’s tone

Full video of Tuesday’s County Board meeting

O’Day set the tone for Tuesday’s citizen’s comments early on. Instead of simply opening the comment period, O’Day outlined the rules of making comments.

These included a 3-minute time limit, providing name and address before making comments, refraining from using profane or vulgar language, and making threatening comments directed at individuals. 

County Board members cannot legally respond to citizens’ comments. O’Day asked those present not to ask that they do so.

Local activist remorseful

On the protesters’ side, the civic-minded usual suspects were present for the meeting. However, the tone of the words coming from their mouths had vastly changed since the board’s last fiery meeting. 

“I’d like to pause for a minute and take full responsibility for my actions at the last meeting and meetings prior,” said activist Whitney Cabal, also known as “Billy Violet.” “It has been brought to my attention that I have a powerful presence. And while I cannot undo the words that I said or the actions that I’ve done, I can learn from them. 

“Tonight, I’d like to pledge to both the citizens of Kenosha and county board supervisors  … that moving forward; I’m going to try to do better.” 

Cabal had partly led the charge at the County Board Executive Committee last month to reopen citizens’ comments. The public not hearing O’Day’s calls for comments at the start of the meeting sparked the outrage that led to the adjournment. 

That charge resulted in Rose’s resolution not being discussed by the committee.

Amendments drafted by Supervisor Laura Belsky failed to make it into the record that night. 

Diamond Hartwell, a familiar face at the meetings who lately gives her comments while resting on crutches, made it a point to say that she has no problems with her supervisor at all.

“You’re a man of your word, so we don’t have much to talk about,” she said. “There will be a time, and we will talk about it if it ever happens, I promise you.”

Silence

She also addressed a misunderstanding, she felt, about something she said at the last meeting concerning board members’ silence.

“The silence that we’re talking about is the silence that comes to you guys when supervisors are very out of line and make terrible comments about specific demographics. The silence we’re talking about is when you are blind to people coming in with masks and sitting less than six feet away from each other. That’s the silence that we’re talking about.

“The silence when someone that shouldn’t be happening happens. … So when I talk about silence, I mean your actions and how you deal with things that are blatantly wrong as leaders in our community.”

In fact, the only somewhat aggressive comment came from a citizen who pointed out that, under state guidelines, residents do not have to prove that they have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a face mask. 

She also read advice from the state concerning the statewide mask mandate. The state’s information tells residents to do nothing if they see someone not wearing a face mask, she noted.

She also read the portion of the mandate concerning medical conditions. The mandate does not require proof of a medical condition if someone states they cannot wear a mask because of one.

Former board member critical of supervisor behavior

Former County Board supervisor Joseph Clark’s comments at Tuesday’s County Board meeting

Joseph Clark proved an oddity to others in the audience.

He received applause from people adorned in Trump 2020 gear in the back when he encouraged the board to stick to making residents give their full address in giving comments.

However, this changed when his words turned critical of the lack of civility. And when he made references to Supervisor Erin Decker’s behavior, instead of claps from the Trump-supporting crowd, he received finger snaps from the protest/activist crowd.

“I’ve been watching county government for the last 25 years,” he said. “I was never so disgusted by watching a meeting last week. We had a supervisor who may have been listening but had her back turned to the citizens of Kenosha County. I sat there through some contentious meetings with them outside the building, chanting it’s time for me to go, but I sat there and always listened respectfully.

“If you cannot respect the public, you shouldn’t be in office.”

Decker did turn to face the public during the citizens’ comments portion of Tuesday’s meeting.

‘Respect the decorum of this chamber’

Clark also urged the public to respect the decorum of the County Board chamber. 

“We as citizens we need to come here and speak, but we also need to come here and respect the decorum of this chamber,” Clark said. “And I saw some nonsense here in the back tonight which just kind of made me sick. And it wasn’t from the county board.”

Clark referred to a situation earlier in the night where an activist and a supporter of Donald Trump. The activist, holding “Decker = racist” sign, and the woman, holding a “Women for Trump” sign, battled with their signs to cover each other’s up.

Eventually, a deputy stepped in to tell them to “act like adults.”

He encouraged the board to be thinking about bringing jobs to communities that need them. He said this is important as they look over County Executive Jim Kreuser’s 2021 budget.

“You guys are policymakers,” he said. “You guys have the No. 1 policy before you, the budget. There are a lot of things in that budget. And while we’re looking to invest in the Uptown area, we’re bringing more government, we need to bring more jobs to the Uptown area.

“And as you look at Kenosha County and you look at the diversity of Kenosha County, you need to make sure those jobs are there for the people of diversity.”

Clark bluntly told the board that they “gotta have enough of the showmanship and you have to start working together.”

“When I was in the County Board, we had many difficult issues,” Clark said. “But when we got done, we walked on the other side of the chamber and we went for a drink. We battled on this side, but respected each other on the other side. This county board needs to do that.”

O’Day gives 24-year perspective

John O’Day’s comments at Tuesday’s County Board meeting

O’Day has served on the County Board since 1996, noting that “it means a great deal to me.”

“One of the hallmarks of public service is respect,” O’Day said in his closing comments Tuesday night. “Respect for other supervisors and respect for the public. The reason why we have found ourselves in unprecedented times which cause passions and emotions to run high, as we saw in other meetings. Which I’m glad we didn’t see here tonight. 

“As a result, we have found it more challenging than ever to demonstrate the standards of respect we demand of each other.” 

He further pointed out that, by law, the board cannot response during the citizens’ comments portion of the meeting.

“Our job during that portion of the meeting is to just listen,” O’ Day said. “I believe that listening respectfully requires looking at the person speaking. I believe that most the board agrees with me.”

Silence not a lack of caring

He asked residents not take the board’s “silence since that meeting as a lack of caring about any disrespectful behavior.”

“There have been some who have been asking us to censure or some other type of discipline. Ultimately, the members of the board are accountable to their constituents, not their fellow supervisors. They get voted in; they get voted out.”

He encouraged both the public and supervisors to move forward from this point with civility and respect.

“I urge everyone, supervisors and citizens alike, to buck the trend we’re seeing in society and demonstrate civility, courtesy and respect for each other,” he said. 

And find ways to communicate our positions that recognize the things we have in common must always be stronger than those which divide us.”

Rating: 1 out of 5.

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Daniel Thompson is an independent journalist and the founder of The Uptown Observer based in the Kenosha, Wis., area. He started in journalism at the Western Nebraska Observer in 2012 and, most notably,...