Lewis County Offices Close to the Public, Commissioners Concerned About Access

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All offices in the Lewis County Courthouse had similar notices posted on their respective doors Wednesday morning, notifying the public of a temporary ban on in-person access that went into effect on March 17. 

The Assessor's office is slated to be closed from March 17 through March 31, while no re-open date was given for the Treasurer’s and Auditor's office. According to Lewis County Treasurer Arny Davis, the closure of his office is evaluated on a “day-to-day,” basis. Additionally, Lewis County Sheriff Robert Snaza added the Sheriff’s office is closed to the public. 

The Historic Courthouse will officially close to the public at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

“It’s only in the interest of our employees and the community,” Snaza said during Wednesday’s meeting. “One suggestion I would have is that, and it’s merely a suggestion, is that we all together make a decision to shut our offices until at least March 30, which is a Monday, at which time it can be re-evaluated.”

Lewis County Prosecuting Attorney Jonathan Meyer said the closures will help county officials and employees avoid “unnecessary contact” that could ultimately lead to more COVID-19 cases. 

The Board of County Commissioners office has yet to close to the public. Meyer thinks the two-week public closure of the BOCC, which was proposed in Tuesday’s COVID-19 meeting by County Manager Erik Martin, is necessary. 

“I think it’s an important step that needs to be taken,” Meyer said during Wednesday morning’s meeting. “If the board looks at what happened about five minutes after the meeting yesterday, you have the other electeds (officials) in this building saying, ‘that’s it, we’re done, we’re not going to be open to the public.’ Now, when people come into the building, the only place they’re going to go is to your (the commissioners) office.”

Commissioner Gary Stamper was opposed to the presented resolution to close the courthouse to the public for two weeks, citing the importance of public engagement at the BOCC’s weekly business meeting.

“At this point in time, I think that we can still conduct our regular business meetings and we could probably include the (County Manager) update back-to-back,” Stamper said following Tuesday’s COVID-19 meeting. “I think it’s important for people to see their county leaders and also to have access to them, whatever that looks like. We clearly know there are some safeguards we can put in place.” 

He continued by mentioning the potential perception of the public if the county government were to temporarily limit access. 

“I’m fearful that if we were to close the doors, and I know people have access as far as electronically, I’m concerned that there would be a panic,” Stamper said. “If they don’t have a place they can go and voice their concerns, where we have that every monday morning, for three minutes. There might be some limitations on that, but at least they can come to a place where our government is functioning, which it would anyway.”

On Wednesday morning, Stamper proposed continuing to host the once-weekly BOCC business meeting, with some procedural changes. He mentioned potentially screening attendees before allowing them to enter and enforce social distancing once in the courtroom. He added he wasn’t quite sure what screening would look like. 

Commissioner Bobby Jackson, who favored the two-week closure when it was presented during Tuesday’s meeting, opposed the revisions proposed by Stamper, citing the brevity of the closure and the risk of holding public meetings in a county building. 

Jackson mentioned all of the online accommodations, such as meetings live streamed on YouTube and Facebook Live, the public would have at its disposal during the potential closure. 

“We’re not shutting down business and we’re not denying access. We’re simplifying showing responsibility to our citizens as well as our employees,” Jackson said. “We want them to be safe. I think for a two-week period, I think that the community would more than understand and they would probably appreciate that. Then, when we come back on (April 3), we can reevaluate the situation.”

Commissioner Edna Fund confirmed, following Wednesday morning’s meeting, the only issue left to resolve concerning the closure of the courthouse to the public is in-person access to the weekly BOCC meeting. 

On Monday, she mentioned she felt that limiting public access to the meetings would be a “very big step.”

“I know people can do things online, I like that, I want that more to happen,” Fund said after Monday’s COVID-19 meeting. “But if somebody has a difficult question to be asked and they want to have a face-to-face, I hate to give that up. We try to balance service delivery and health.”