Pandemic handling emerges as issue for Neosho council candidates

Joe Hadsall, The Joplin Globe, Mo.
·9 min read

Apr. 2—NEOSHO, Mo. — As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the region over the past year, the city of Neosho lifted lockdown measures in place and resisted the institution of new ones.

—In the face of rising numbers, the City Council in July voted to lift its existing lockdown completely, removing all occupancy limits and business limitations.

—When asked by residents, hospitals and health agencies in December to help stave off another surge, the council rejected proposals for a mask-wearing order and occupancy limits. No votes were taken — council members refused to second motions that would have introduced the opportunity for discussion.

Yet a segment of the community remains upset with the council for even bringing up the measures in the first place. Public meetings in July and December were filled with attendees opposing any sort of limitation. More than 20 people at each meeting spoke against such measures. Members of the public made both of those meetings contentious with interruptions, theatrics and disrespectful behavior.

The pandemic has become an issue for the seven candidates in races for the Neosho City Council. For some, the city's handling of the pandemic is the main reason they entered the race. Some of them are running on platforms of constitutional protections that have become politicized nationally by conservatives; others have called for following the advice of scientists and researchers.

The Globe asked each of the seven candidates the same questions regarding the pandemic, including how often it surfaces in their campaigns, whether the city's actions were the right ones and what they would do in the face of another pandemic or a resurgence of COVID-19. The election will be held Tuesday.

—Charles Collinsworth, an at-large candidate, said he has heard about the issue for more than a year now. He spoke against limitations at both the July and December meetings, and he said he left the December meeting before things got out of hand. He also has recommended incumbents in the race for the Newton County Health Board, based on how the county handled the pandemic.

Collinsworth said he felt such limitations were something Neosho did not want in any form. He said the City Council made the right decisions in those meetings, but he faulted the council for offering limited time to residents who wanted to sign up for speaking positions.

"I believe they were the right moves, but I don't believe the council decided it. I think they were forced into the decisions by people speaking," Collinsworth said. "Most of the people I've talked to feel like the council didn't listen to them. That sometimes pivoted into considering emergency measures and mandates."

Collinsworth said that he values research in preparing for a future event and puts a higher value on research generated closer to home. If a resurgence occurs, he believes in protecting liberty and freedom first.

"I'm not a big fan of government intervention," Collinsworth said. "COVID is real. I'm not a science denier. But I don't believe it is the place of government to shut down a business or tell them how many to allow in. ... I feel like the job of government is to inform."

—Kathi Hukill Pellegrin, an at-large candidate, said she is consistently asked about a mask mandate and that she tells people that she wears a mask if a business or group of people request for her to do so.

While Pellegrin said she respected hospitals and health centers asking for a mask-wearing order in December, she said the council did the right thing by dropping the idea.

"I think we are educated people, and we have been educated about this," Pellegrin said. "It's about free will. We need to respect others' decisions to comply or not, and if not, we have the choice to associate with them or not. ... I don't think it was the wrong call by the city, but it was a hard call."

Pellegrin said that if elected, she would encourage people to follow the advice of medical professionals but not make orders to that effect.

"It's important that we listen to them," Pellegrin said. "We should follow the guidelines they recommend but not institute them in a selfish way. We have to respect the choice of free will."

—Mitch Jarvis, an at-large candidate, said he has been disappointed by how more conservative voices in the community have changed the pandemic into a "he who shouts loudest" type of issue. He said he plans to be a more moderate voice than other candidates and has recommended one challenger candidate for the Newton County Health Board.

Jarvis said he doesn't know how he would have voted if he was on the council over the past year, especially the mask order and occupancy limits proposed in December. But he faulted the council for not seconding motions that would have led to votes.

"I don't know how I would have voted on that decision in December because it would have been largely unenforceable," Jarvis said. "But there were enough people who asked the City Council for that mandate that they deserved to second it and go on the record voting. I thought it was a mistake, and cowardly, for the council to shut down."

If elected, Jarvis said, he would lead in a way that helps support the community and small businesses. He pointed to how First United Methodist Church, where he is pastor, made it through and found ways to work around challenges.

"We were closed longer than any other congregations around here," Jarvis said. "We found different ways to go about our business, and we came out just fine. We supported each other and supported the community. The lesson we learned is that we can find workarounds when faced with these challenges and not be so scared of something that we either take no action at all or go overboard with too many."

—Clyde Hopper, a Ward 2 candidate, turned down the opportunity to answer the Globe's questions, saying that the issue was in the past and that dredging it up was counterproductive.

—Richard Davidson, a Ward 2 candidate, said community members have approached him with concerns about how the council managed its business throughout the pandemic with little notice to the public. He spoke against limitations at both the July and December meetings.

He said the council made the right calls in July and December, but he faulted the council for mixed messages and little advance notice.

"What's emerged is how the council acted as if there was no desire to pass a mask mandate, but then twice they brought them to a vote with very little notice or preparations for the public to know about them," Davidson said. "I don't believe it is government's role to dictate actions to its citizens. I carry a mask in my pocket and wear it wherever I go, because I take personal responsibility for my safety."

In the event of a similar pandemic, Davidson said, careful sourcing of data will be his guiding principle.

"So much of what I have heard over the past 12 months ranges from how COVID is fake to how there is a resurgence coming," Davidson said. "You have to make sure your sources are reliable. If you talk to government offices or anyone in the loop who knows real data, then you are very informed before you make a decision."

—Jon Stephens, a Ward 3 candidate, is the only candidate with actual governing experience with COVID-19.

He served on the council in 2020 before losing a reelection bid in June.

In March 2020, he and then-interim Mayor Carmin Allen sparred while considering a stay-at-home order for the city.

Stephens sought a direct yes-or-no vote, while Allen proposed tabling it to pursue more information. In the end, both got what they wanted: The council rejected the stay-at-home order with a 5-0 vote and asked the city staff to investigate questions voiced in more than 300 emails to the city.

The handling of the pandemic is what drove Stephens to run for the council again.

He said he felt, and people told him, that rights were being taken away from people, which is not the role of the City Council. He said he agreed with the decisions from July and December.

"I didn't feel like the number of cases warranted the effect it would have on our small businesses, and that's why I agree with those decisions," Stephens said. "It's the basis of why I ran again. I felt like we weren't being represented correctly for what the majority wanted."

In the event of a similar event, Stephens said, he will give more weight to measures employed by similarly sized and situated areas.

"Obviously you take those things seriously, but at the same time, you have to look at the data and determine if it makes sense for Neosho," Stephens said. "We can't look just at New York or California. We have to decide if something makes sense for our town and how does it affect the people serving here."

—Julia James Humphrey, a Ward 3 candidate, said the issue has not surfaced in her campaign as much as other issues regarding the future of the community. While a drop in testing reported by the Newton County Health Department concerned her, she said she has heard hopefulness and encouragement about things returning to normal as more people get vaccinated.

She disagreed with the council's December decision to not pass a mask order. She wrote a letter to the council in favor of the proposal, she said.

"I felt like we needed to have the ordinance because of the numbers we were seeing in the area," Humphrey said. "A lot of health departments were saying that mask (orders) were working, and that wearing masks was the best way to continue to be as normal as possible. I know there was concern about closing things, and I don't feel that situation was ever on the table."

Humphrey said that if a resurgence or new virus emerges, she will lead from a place of making decisions from accurate information, not kneejerk reactions.

"Decisions are best made intellectually instead of a place of emotion," Humphrey said. "I saw a lot of people coming at the situation from a place of emotion and fear instead of being able to look at things and gather information or find out real facts."