RICHMOND — An hour-long discussion, at times heated and personal, on whether the Eagleton Center could be used for a Republican meet-and-greet for a political candidate and an election watch party on Nov. 3 brought an overflow crowd to Ray County Commissioner’s office on Tuesday.
Western Commissioner Jerry Bishop says he received permission from Presiding Commissioner Bob King for its use on Nov. 3. However, King says he wasn’t told it was for a political purpose, which would conflict with state law, citing statute 115.646. Another factor, King says, is the center is closed due to the pandemic.
Reading from the March 13 commission minutes, Eastern Commissioner Allen Dale cited the commission took action to close the Eagleton Center, primarily used as the county’s senior center. The action was due to Mid America Regional Council shuttering its senior services on March 16 at the start of a statewide shutdown. The stipulation was to keep the University of Missouri Extension offices open, according to the minutes Dale read. Other than a meeting with school officials regarding CARES Act funding, the facility has been off limits to the public except for MU Extension business and the county fair’s ham breakfast, both King and Dale say.
“Well, according to our minutes, it’s still closed. There’s been no further notice,” Dale says.
“It’s pretty cut and dry, folks,” King says. “You can’t use it. I’m sure there’s other buildings.”
Bishop didn’t think so.
“The Eagleton Center right now is open, because the governor opened it,” he says, citing Gov. Mike Parson’s June 6 order that opened state facilities. Dale and King say that order doesn’t pertain to county operations. Bishop also contends it doesn’t matter if the county-owned facility is rented for political purposes.
Republican sheriff’s candidate Scott Childers was hoping to host a meet-and-greet on Oct. 24 at the Eagleton, pushing that invitation on social media. King says he was unaware of the Oct. 24 event. Childers, along with his supporters, and his opponent, Democratic incumbent Sheriff Garry Bush, were on hand at the meeting.
Just 13 days before an election, some see the denial as political and hurtful to Childers.
“I’ll tell you it feels as if you are punishing Mr. Childers,” one audience member says.
Dale countered. “What about the seniors that are punished that can’t get in and get companionship? There’s a lot of punishment that Covid has cost. I’m sorry about for that, but we are trying to keep everybody safe. And I really think if I was running for political office, public safety would be the first thing on my mind,” he says, directed toward Childers.
Democratic Central Committee member Cindy Hewitt says she was at the meeting to let the audience know they, too, were denied used of the Eagleton for a political event.
“I asked for the building earlier and they told me no as well because of Covid. We were perfectly fine with it. We went to a park and did a meet-and-greet. We wore masks and we improvised because of what’s going on,” Hewitt told KMZU.
Her message wasn’t shared with the audience, though.
The meeting careened into the validity of shutting down the senior center and questioning the motives of the two Democratic commissioners.
Ron White, a board member for the Ray County Health Department, says the health department administrator advises its continued closure.
“Shelby Spor (health department administrator) is highly against opening that senior citizens (center),” he says through a mask. “It only takes one out there to get sick and kill a bunch of old people.”
“This is not political,” White adds. “Yeah, I’m running a campaign, but this is not Democrat and Republican. This is health and safety of our citizens of Ray County.”
White’s comment drew laughter from some, including Childers. It’s unclear if the outburst stems from his stance on the mitigation of the virus or White’s candidacy as a Democrat for the open Eastern Commissioner seat.
“You sit there and laugh all you want, big guy,” White retorts to Childers.
In a tone not heard by KMZU, Childers was called a derogatory term by Hewitt.
“Did she just call me an a**hole?” Childers says loudly.
“I didn’t hear it,” King replies.
“Well, I did and she called me an a**hole. I want her gone,” Childers says.
“Why was he laughing?” Hewitt says.
“Let’s quit the child’s play,” Dale replies.
“No, I’m not going to be called an a**hole. I’m asking you to have her removed,” Childers says loudly.
“Sir, if you’re fortunate enough to be elected, you’ll be called that quite a bit,” Dale retorts.
Throughout the meeting, Dale suggests the reopening of the Eagleton could be addressed by a vote of the commission. With the urging of the audience, Bishop makes the motion. However, it died from a lack of a second.
That action angered some in the audience, who want the center open for business.
“This is our community. We want our community back. Not just for political reasons, but for life,” says resident Lin Templeton. “We deserve to have this open, all of us, Democrat, Republican, Independent.”
The elder presiding commissioner — whose recall was questioned by Childers in tense exchanges — says it’s about putting seniors first.
“We got old people who are subjected to this virus a lot, more so than others, King says. “That’s one of the reasons we are looking out for them.”
Senior center director Pat Mills says opening the center would be difficult because the center contracts through Mid America Regional County, a planning and economic development organization, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. It also would require more manpower for cleaning and disinfecting than current staffing could do.
“I am mandated by MARC as to what I can do. They could have opened that center, but I could not have brought in my seniors,” Mills says.
Mills says MARC will review its Covid-related recommendations in January 2021.