By Lasca Randels
WARSAW — Hours before the expected release of a letter from Zimmer Biomet addressing concerns over the county’s involvement in the critical race theory debate, a tense discussion on the subject took place at the Kosciusko County Commissioners’ meeting.
Several sharp exchanges were made toward the end of the meeting Tuesday, July 20, when public comments were entertained.
At that time, area resident Don Zolman presented a copy of an online petition urging county officials to focus on county business. Zolman first brought the petition, referred to as ‘the Kosciusko County Taxpayer Bill of Rights,’ to the attention of commissioners earlier this month.
Zolman announced Tuesday that he has several hundred signatures on the petition as well as a number of volunteers ready to take to the streets to gather additional signatures.
He then thanked commissioners “for the good work you do for the county” and said the petition was not meant as a personal attack.
“There are just certain areas where we’ve crossed the line,” Zolman said, adding that he has spoken with each commissioner individually about his concerns. He said the only person he has not spoken with is County Attorney Ed Ormsby because Ormsby has not returned his calls.
“I’ve tried to go about this behind the scenes and I did not feel I was being heard, so this became the result of that frustration that I saw,” Zolman said.
One of Zolman’s concerns was the way the county responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Zolman said he visited county offices during the pandemic and saw officials not wearing masks.
Zolman then went on to say that county officials have no right to determine what is or is not constitutional.
Commissioners have passed resolutions in recent months declaring the county a Second Amendment Sanctuary County and underscoring its opposition to mandating COVID-19 vaccines.
Zolman also expressed concerns about a July 8 event in Winona Lake featuring Attorney General Todd Rokita, who spoke about his Parents Bill of Rights, which serves as a guide for parents on how to be aware and involved in their child’s education. Critical Race Theory was addressed at that meeting, which Zolman attended.
Zolman said he had a few concerns that he wanted to address that evening, “but they chose not to call on me.”
“It’s fine to have a fact-finding meeting and discuss things as a community, Zolman said, but cautioned that “we have to be very careful that we aren’t busing people in from other areas.”
He said the people seated at his table during the event were not from Kosciusko County. One woman at his table, who Zolman said was from Madison County, was called on to speak during the event.
“I don’t know why they were there for a local fact-finding meeting. I don’t think that’s the kind of format for honest discussion and fact-finding,” Zolman said. “It should be Kosciusko County people talking about it.”
Commissioner Brad Jackson said the staff manning the microphones at the meeting were from Indianapolis “who have no idea who you are” and described it as a public meeting in which people could show up from anywhere.
Zolman claimed he was “tagged” when he walked in the room. When asked what he meant by “tagged,” he responded, “They mentioned my name. I don’t know how they knew me.”
Ormsby, who appeared to take offense to Zolman’s earlier comment about “busing people in,” said, “There was no checking at the door on where people came from. It was a public town hall. It was in the newspapers and people were allowed to come. We certainly didn’t bus people in.”
“Same difference. Some people invited from other areas to come and pack the hall…that’s what you did,” Zolman said.
“It was in the newspapers,” Ormsby repeated.
“You know you did it,” Zolman countered. “It was originally billed as a community meeting that was sponsored by the commissioners office. It somehow morphed into something that was done by the attorney general’s office. “
Zolman then announced that he had contacted the attorney general’s office and was told the event was set up by the county.
“So I guess you guys need to try to get your stories straight and not try to bamboozle somebody with some of your comments because that’s just not the case,” Zolman said.
“I just have to say that’s offensive,” Ormsby snapped. “We’re not bamboozling anybody and you calling us dishonest is an insult.”
Commissioner President Bob Conley attempted to steer the conversation back to order as Zolman and Ormsby continued to debate.
“I have a right to respond,” Zolman protested.
“The issue seems to be that you want your opinion to be heard, but you don’t want to hear ours,” Conley said to Zolman.
Dr. Chris Magiera, of Warsaw, spoke next. He had earlier suggested the commissioners investigate CRT.
“I just wanted to thank you for the work you do here and watching out for the liberty of the citizens of Kosciusko County,” Magiera said. “When it comes to watching out for liberty, I think this can easily be guided by an incident that happened in our history back in 1798 when the United States government passed a series of acts called the Alien and Sedition Acts.”
The acts were looked upon as quite oppressive to liberty, Magiera said, and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, in response, prepared the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, political statements in which Kentucky and Virginia legislatures took the position that the federal Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional.
“That act in itself, even though it was a non-binding resolution, drew a line in the sand that the states were unwilling to accept unconstitutional infringement of liberty,” Magiera said. “So I think that anything this commission can do for liberty would be greatly appreciated and again our history is one in which even a non-binding resolution expresses an opinion.”
He ended by describing CRT as “identity-based Marxism.”
Brian Smith, of Leesburg, was the last to approach the podium. He referenced “an unfortunate incident” that occurred after the Rokita event between himself and Conley.
Smith said the theme of the evening was civility in which a civil discussion about CRT and Rokita’s Parents Bill of Rights was desired.
After the meeting, Smith said, he echoed Zolman’s sentiments to Conley, that those who spoke in opposition to CRT were not from Kosciusko County.
“But every single person who spoke in support of some sort of race teaching in the classroom and history and how we teach slavery and our country’s unfortunate racial past, was from Kosciusko County,” Smith said.
He said Conley refused to shake his hand after the interaction.
“How is that civil? I tried to have a civil conversation with you and you just kind of blew me off,” Smith said. “You work for me.”
Conley responded, “I didn’t blow you off. I stood for 10 minutes talking to you civilly.”
“If I were to interact in the way you interacted with me with my employer that pays me, I’d be out on the street,” Smith shot back. “I’m very disappointed that you would not shake your own constituent’s hand.”
“I’m sad that you feel that way,” Conley said to Smith. “Because I felt that I spent more than enough time with you.”
Conley added that because of COVID, he rarely shakes hands anymore and is more likely to bump elbows.
Smith then questioned Ormsby about the Zimmer Biomet letter, saying he submitted a records request for the letter and had not yet received a reply.
Ormsby said the letter will be released later in the day.