We live in a time when our rights and liberties are being taken away at all levels of government. Last week, the Rexburg City Council tabled another attempt to pass a mask ordinance. This latest attempt came with steep penalties for non-compliance including fines for offenders and the threat of license suspension and forced closure for businesses who don’t compel their “employee, vendor, patron, or any other person” to comply.
The ordinance was added to the agenda barely 24 hours before the scheduled meeting with a recommendation to move it to a third reading, with no public comment, so it could be voted on that night. This left citizens little time to submit comments or be heard by their council members.
Even with the tight time-frame more than 200 people showed up at City Hall to voice their opinion. Sadly, the city chose to literally lock the community out of the meeting, forcing them to stand in the dark cold, demanding to be heard.
I was privileged to be part of the group which is now being called a “mob.” This was not a mob but a gathering of fellow Rexburg community members, friends, and neighbors; I visited with them for an hour before the meeting. There were business owners who don’t want to be shut down for not being the city’s enforcers. It included farmers, students, professionals, and parents who don’t want to be cited $100, $300, and slapped with a misdemeanor for not following an unconstitutional mandate.
I have sympathy for those shut out of a public meeting, in the cold, for three hours while the city council sits inside, comfortably warm, blithely considering the “rights” and mandates of those they exclude from the meeting. Of course the people were upset!! I was too. Other issues on the agenda—urban renewal—allowed “select” people inside for comment. The city council even allowed the hospital administrator to speak about the mask ordinance—but nobody else. The true issue is not the efficacy of masks and the science on both sides; rather it is the issue of transparency and fairness of the process used to make such crucial decisions.
The circumstances were not fun for anyone involved. The council doesn’t like dissent, disruptions, and angry words tossed in their direction. The people whose rights were on the line don’t like having to come to city hall in the dark, in the cold, only to be denied their voice in the public process.
Some have claimed the city council is just trying to keep businesses open. In reality, the only threat of closing businesses is coming from the government itself. The people who showed up to comment on the ordinance, myself included, were there in an effort to keep businesses open (and not shut down by the city), and to keep people free to make their own decisions regarding their health and safety.
The city can and should do better than this. So, yes, some people got angry. They said bad things. It was ugly outside the city hall. But it was more ugly and more reprehensible inside to see council members consider an unconstitutional ordinance, deny public access, and then appear victimized at how the people were upset. This is why we have open meeting laws. Long ago, wise leaders realized civility is best achieved in an open and transparent process. When controversial decisions are made in the dark, behind locked doors, good Americans will and should push back every time.
Civility is a two-way street, so hopefully, the city council will learn from this experience. Perhaps the they will avoid even considering unconstitutional ordinances, but should they try, at least they will follow open meeting laws and create the atmosphere for civil discourse from the beginning. And I know the people, who want to be heard, will be respectful of those efforts. I am confident Rexburg can have open, honest, and civil public meetings; and I support maintaining a fair process.
Just like our nation’s founders demonstrated, sometimes the impolite actions of government deserve an impolite response. When the people care enough to come to city hall to push back against threats to their liberty being leveled through an unfair process, I will side with the citizens. And, I will always stand for liberty with my fellow community members.