The Mohave County Board of Supervisors last week discussed possible revisions to county procedures on what speakers would, or would not, be permitted to say during the county’s “call to the public.” Although the proposed changes were disregarded by the board of supervisors, the board’s chairman has been urged to curb future abuse toward staff by Mohave County residents.
For weeks, the county’s governing board has been subjected to slurs, insults and personal attacks in reference to measures taken against the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And when Kingman resident Jennifer Jones Esposito took to the podium on Tuesday, the Mohave County Board of Supervisors knew what to expect.
Esposito was allotted three minutes of time to address the board at Tuesday’s meeting during the county’s “call to the public.” Esposito used the majority of her time at the podium to hurl abuse at supervisors, referring to Chairman Buster Johnson as an incompetent coward, and to referring to 46-year-old District 1 Supervisor and former Kingman Vice Mayor Travis Lingenfelter, as “little boy.” She questioned their knowledge of Arizona’s open meeting law. During Esposito’s initial tirade, Johnson threatened to have Esposito removed from the meeting if she continued to abuse the board or county staff members.
The incident preceded a discussion by the Board of Supervisors on possible new provisions to the county’s rules of order, which might otherwise have allowed supervisors to silence members of the public who spoke objectionably at county meetings. The board ultimately declined to pursue any changes to the county’s existing ordinance on free speech during the call to the public.
At the board’s Aug. 16 meeting, supervisors agreed to add additional stipulations to forms required for county residents to speak during the call to the public. Speakers were warned that their respective speaking privileges would be terminated should they choose to verbally attack or impugn board members, staff or other speakers. A proposal by Lingenfelter on Tuesday also would have required speakers to state how their comments would relate to the board’s business.
Members of the public addressed the board on Lingenfelter’s proposal. Esposito once again returned to the podium.
“I must be one of the only people in this room who has read the entire body of the state’s open meeting law,” Esposito told the board. “We have normal first amendment protections during the call to the public, and there’s a very narrow definition of how the public body can restrict speech during the call to the public. But people have every right to redress grievances in any way they see fit.”
Esposito said it was the right of members of the community to criticize performance by their elected officials that they believed to be poor or inadequate.
“You can’t silence free speech because you don’t like someone’s point of view,” she said. “Just because it makes you uncomfortable doesn’t mean you have the right to limit free speech.”
Esposito’s husband, Jeff Esposito, also addressed the board. He used his allotted time during the debate’s public hearing to tell board members that the topic was a slippery slope. He also informed Supervisors Johnson and Jean Bishop that they should move to China, in reference to their vote on a previous topic of discussion before the board.
Bullhead City resident Scotty McClure also spoke at the meeting, during which he presented the board with a print of Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech.”
“I’m getting tired of seeing freedom of speech getting chipped away,” McClure said. “They’ve done it with the second amendment – they keep chipping away at it. And now you’re chipping away at free speech.”
Lingenfelter didn’t disagree with the speakers, but expressed his disagreement with name-calling and slurs during the county’s public meetings. Mohave County Manager Sam Elters, whose staff have received their own share of abuse for the past several months, concurred with Lingenfelter’s objection.
“I object to the language and personal attacks on county staff,” Elters said. “These are professionals, and they do the best job they can based on the information they have. If there is disagreement, we understand, and no one’s perfect. But to attack our integrity, our personal beliefs and us, personally, is unacceptable. There’s no excuse for it.”
Johnson, however, asserted his belief that the county’s “call to the public” was unnecessary in the first place.
“I disagree that people have a right to have a ‘call to the public’,” Johnson said. “If we’re going to have a town hall, we should have a town hall. But we have a meeting to do, and I think this country is getting away from all the rules we’ve had until now. I think civility is something we need to put into these meetings. People can still disagree, but if I were a business owner looking to come to Mohave County, and I watched one of our meetings, I wouldn’t bring my business here.”
Mohave County Supervisor Hildy Angius, however, appeared to believe that criticism was the right of Mohave County residents – but that the board’s chairman should use his or her own judgment in determining what would be permitted.
“If the chairman finds something outrageous, it should be the chair’s decision to revoke someone’s speaking privileges,” Angius said. “Even when I was the board’s chairwoman, there were times when I had to stop people. But there might be a time when the entire county comes to tell us we’re doing a rotten job, and they should be allowed to do that. We have a system that’s worked for almost 10 years, and we’re talking about changing something that’s worked 99% of the time.”
The board voted 3-2 to maintain new rules established on Aug. 16.