The Great Bend City Council’s regular meeting Monday evening looms large as the community grows increasingly polarized over the city’s standoff with Police Chief Cliff Couch and the chief’s July 24 suspension, an action that has prompted many residents to consider attending the meeting en masse.
In response, city officials said Wednesday afternoon that plans are being discussed to accommodate a larger crowd. More details will be released Thursday.
It was a sharply split council that approved suspending Couch, leading to those voting for the move getting calls and threats. It has also sparked a movement to plant blue signs and hang blue ribbons in support of the police chief.
And it is these signs and comments that prompted Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir to suggest via a letter Friday that city officials change the Monday meeting venue from the city office at 1209 Williams. He recommended a larger facility to accommodate the possible crowd.
Couch appealed last Friday his suspension for insubordination, claiming he was only blowing the whistle on unethical behavior at City Hall. His claims have placed him crossways with City Administrator Howard Partington.
However, there are essentially two issues. First is the Monday meeting and second is Couch’s appeal hearing before the council.
Couch filed his appeal by the Friday deadline imposed by the council. This started the clock giving the council two weeks to hold his hearing.
The meeting Monday falls within that time frame. But, it remains undetermined whether the council will chose to hold the hearing at that time or hold it separately.
“The city is attempting to get a hearing set in this matter,” an official city statement reads. City officials were informed by their special counsel Wichita attorney Ed Keeley Monday that a new attorney is now representing Couch, so “Recognizing the community interest in this matter, special counsel is working with the new attorney to get this matter set for hearing as soon as possible.”
Couch has the option to waive the two-week requirement.
Bellendir expressed fears about the potential of a large, possibly hostile, crowd at the meeting and strongly advised the meeting be moved.
“As chief elected law enforcement officer of Barton County I have serious concerns about the current situation involving Chief Couch and the governing body,” Bellendir wrote in his letter. “It is my responsibility to protect the rights and safety of all the citizens of Barton County including those that live in the City of Great Bend.”
The sheriff noted he has received numerous phone calls and met with many people face-to-face about this issue. “It has come to my attention there is a distinct possibility there will be a very large crowd at the next City Council meeting. Estimates range from 100 to 300.”
But, “my concern arises due to the location of the council meeting,” he wrote. “The city building simply is not large enough. I strongly advise the City Council to move the next scheduled meeting or any special session to a larger venue such as the Crest Theater, City Auditorium or any other location that may safely accommodate persons wishing to observe and participate in local government.”
Citizens have the right to watch government at work, he wrote, adding that notification of the change of venue should be made publicly available via print, radio and social media well in advance of the meeting.
“I believe if the meeting is held in the city building and citizens are turned away, there will be strong protests,” he wrote.
But, there is also another potential problem with not moving changing he venue. That is a possible violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
If a large number of people are expected show up and cannot fit in the council chambers, it could be considered a breach of the KOMA which notes that it is a violation if a meeting is held at a location intentionally to restrict public access.
“The KOMA hallmark is a meeting ‘open to the public’; and if a meeting is at such an inconvenient location or in a room so small as to make it inaccessible for public attendance, the meeting might effectively be considered improperly closed under the KOMA,” said Lawrence attorney Max Kautsch, who advises the Kansas Press Association on matters of media law.