CHEYENNE—A Wyoming lawmaker defended Tuesday how he conducted a meeting in Sundance in November when public comment included some ugly personal attacks.
The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee met Nov. 20 in Sundance, where lawmakers discussed legislation that would update gender references in state statute and “amend archaic language,” according to the draft bill.
It would codify the rights of parties legally authorized to marry in Wyoming following a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015 recognizing the validity of same-sex marriages across the country.
While the legislation had attracted little to no public attention prior to Nov. 20, around 35 people showed up to the Sundance meeting in opposition, said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, committee co-chairman. The first to speak was Erik Akola, who moved to Wyoming from Alaska because, he said, “men were men and women were women,” according to a Dec. 5 WyoFile report. Akola, from outside Sundance, went on to describe same-sex couples as “despicable” and “vile.”
This was all as Akola was seated next to House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, who proposed the legislation. Connolly is a longtime advocate for LGBTQ issues and is herself in a same-sex marriage. Comments on the matter went on for more than two hours, with many expressing faith-based convictions that same-sex marriage has no place in Wyoming, no matter what the U.S. Supreme Court decided.
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said many of the comments were in opposition to same-sex marriage, but none of those subsequent to Akola were nearly as ugly.
The committee killed the bill with multiple lawmakers flipping their positions. Now it needs a two-thirds vote to be introduced during the 2018 session, effectively ending it for now.
Some interest groups questioned whether Case, the meeting’s chairman, should have put a stop to the public comment period on that bill.
Marguerite Herman of the League of Women Voters sent the council a memo calling on legislative leaders to implement additional decorum guidelines and encourage committee chairmen to enforce existing ones vigorously. This, she argued, would avoid the possibility of disruptive and abusive comments from intimidating legislators when considering bills. The memo—co-signed by the Equality State Policy Center, Wyoming Equality and the Diocese of Cheyenne—recommended chairmen do the following:
- Keep comments directed at legislation
- Not allow testimony to include personal attacks
- Correct falsehoods or ask for evidence
- Maintain an environment of “decorum and respect, where witnesses may be heard free of interruption and intimidation”
Because of the controversy that emerged from the meeting, the Wyoming Legislature’s Management Council—which includes Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, and House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, as well as Connolly—discussed public decorum in interim committee meetings when they met Tuesday in Cheyenne. Case was called into the Management Council meeting.
Connolly acknowledged that Case interjected at one point to ask Akola to express himself in a responsible manner, asked questions when witnesses made false assertions about the bill and corrected those who made unrealistic claims. And while she said not all the comments after Akola were as offensive, she said others “continued in that vein” through implication “over and over again.”
Rep. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, made the long drive from the northwest corner of the state to Cheyenne to testify before the council. He said it would be unfair to say Case didn’t do his job as chairman during the meeting and was walking a fine line. However, Gierau said he thought the comments did cross a line into inappropriate territory.
“You can disagree without being disagreeable,” he said. “I think debate is fine, and that’s a hard line to walk. (But) if we lower the bar 1 inch on this, we’re going to diminish this body. We’ll be going down a slippery slope.”
Harshman expressed confidence in Case’s work as chairman, and said “sometimes things happen” that can catch those running meetings off guard. While urging caution to those who believed the Legislature as an institution was being diminished by its handling of public testimony, he said the Sundance situation could serve to inform lawmakers going forward.
“Let’s take this and say it was probably a learning experience,” Harshman said. “Let’s learn from it, move on and get better.”
Case, however, said he probably wouldn’t change much of how he handled the situation if he had to do it again. Aside from possibly prompting Connolly to move from her seat at the same table where people were testifying, he said he thinks he did his job in allowing the public to be heard. The comments that day were “stunning,” Case said. But in his view, they were mostly germane to the bill in question. Ultimately, he said he thinks he ran the meeting well.
“I think I ran the meeting to allow for free speech,” he said. “I think that’s why I sleep well at night.”
The council—and Herman during her testimony Tuesday—agreed they want chairmen to exercise a high degree of autonomy in running meetings. But going forward, Bebout said he wanted to see the chairman manual updated and mandatory training provided for the 2018 interim.
At the end of the day, Herman said she was satisfied with the council’s response to the situation.
“The request that came from our memo was about going forward,” she said. “The two co-chairmen are some of the finest legislators in my 35 years (following the Legislature). I didn’t want to go back and revisit (the Sundance situation) so much as going forward. And I think they were receptive to the fact we think it’s important.”