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County Commissioner Norton criticized for leaving meetings early

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, at 4:25 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, at 10:39 a.m.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton has shown a pattern of walking out of meetings during some discussions, especially while colleague Richard Ranzau has been speaking, Ranzau and Commissioner Karl Peterjohn say.

Norton left Wednesday’s commission meeting near the end, during a time called “other” during which commissioners discuss upcoming events, concerns from constituents and matters that don’t fit into the regular agenda.

He said he didn’t know that Peterjohn had written a resolution denouncing the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare, and that commissioners would be voting that day on the resolution, which asked that “Sedgwick County cease and desist in participating with county personnel, funds or grants in any form of Obamacare.”

“We were done with the agenda. I had some phone calls to make,” Norton said Thursday.

He said he thought “somebody else needs to make that determination that there’s a pattern” of him leaving meetings and noted that he returned in time to vote on the resolution.

Commissioners on Tuesday had discussed a $2,400 grant from a nonprofit to help the county cover the costs of employee time for training to be “navigators” of the new health care law and assist people who need help signing up. The board also had discussed the grant last week. Peterjohn on Tuesday said he planned to raise the issue again.

Ranzau, a Republican, said he isn’t buying that Norton, a Democrat, didn’t realize commissioners would be discussing the grant again.

“They knew we were going to talk about this and try to resolve this,” Ranzau said Thursday. “I think we made that very clear.”

Jim Skelton, the chairman of the board, said during the Wednesday meeting that he had received a copy of the proposed resolution earlier that morning. Commissioner Dave Unruh said during the meeting that he had not yet seen a copy of the resolution. Peterjohn passed out copies and apologized that he had not gotten them to everyone earlier.

Before Norton returned to the meeting, Ranzau turned to Skelton and asked, “Are we going to wait until Commissioner Norton returns, or are we going to allow him to dodge this vote as well?”

Skelton noted that he had a motion and a second and that it was “my job as chairman to call for the vote.”

“So you’re going to allow him to dodge this vote as well?” Ranzau asked again.

“I’m not allowing him to do anything,” Skelton said. “I’m not his boss.”

“You’re the chairman. After all, yesterday you said you’re in charge,” Ranzau retorted, alluding to Skelton calling for order when Peterjohn and Unruh were discussing the navigator grant.

Not ‘missing anything’

Norton emphasized Thursday that he did vote. He, Skelton and Unruh voted against Peterjohn’s resolution, which failed.

“I didn’t get the sense I was missing anything at all when I left,” Norton said. “When I realized we were going to vote, I went back in there and voted.”

Norton has left meetings at least four times this year.

He did not vote Sept. 11 on two resolutions, one against Obamacare and one urging the federal government to balance its budget.

Norton said Thursday he didn’t remember that meeting but said commissioners had rigorously debated the Affordable Care Act.

“Everybody who knows me knows how I feel about the underserved, the vulnerable and the elderly,” Norton said. “I don’t know that I need to explain my stance on that.”

Norton also left a meeting while Ranzau was speaking on Oct. 16.

On April 2, Norton left a staff meeting while Ranzau was talking about a sustainable communities grant.

“You guys can have this conversation,” he said as he left the meeting temporarily. He returned later when commissioners discussed the role of the county’s board of health.

A ‘matter of protocol’

Ken Ciboski, associate professor of political science, said he thinks elected officials should listen to one another.

“It’s a matter of protocol. They don’t have to like one another or one another’s views. Protocol would be ‘I’ll listen to you. I may not agree with you. But I’ll listen to you.’ Personally, I think it is kind of bad form, and it kind of leaves a bad taste.”

Skelton said Wednesday he wished Norton would remain at meetings but said “today, I can’t blame him, for example.”

Discussing things “over and over … wears on people. It wears on Tim,” Skelton said.

If Norton repeatedly missed votes, Skelton said, “I would be concerned. I respect Tim, and he’s aware of what his own actions are. There’s consequences to that.”

Unruh said he would not second-guess Norton.

“I’ve made it my pattern or my purpose to be available at meetings, whether it’s staff meetings or commissioner meetings. That’s what I campaigned to do. I wouldn’t criticize another commissioner for whatever his pattern is. In this particular instance, I thought Tim had a call he had to take,” Unruh said.

Peterjohn said he believes there has been a pattern of Norton leaving meetings.

“There is a pattern, but I’m glad he came back for the vote,” Peterjohn said. “We all have tough votes, and there are some issues we are more comfortable discussing than others. But it’s part of the job, and we’re expected to be there. It’s in the rules that we’re supposed to be there, too.”

Ranzau said he doesn’t “get worked up” about Norton leaving meetings but added, “I’m not afraid of debate or opposing opinions. I think part of our job is to listen to those. It’s not something I would do, but he’s got to make that decision for himself.”

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SGCountyDeb.

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