A number of Neosho residents turned out in force to attend the Neosho City Council meeting held Tuesday evening. A capacity crowd filled council chambers at Neosho City Hall, as local people came forward to protest the stance of Mayor Ben Baker regarding the controversial fundraising raffle for an AR-15 rifle to raise funds for a local youth baseball team.

A number of Neosho residents turned out in force to attend the Neosho City Council meeting held Tuesday evening. A capacity crowd filled council chambers at Neosho City Hall, as local people came forward to protest the stance of Mayor Ben Baker regarding the controversial fundraising raffle for an AR-15 rifle to raise funds for a local youth baseball team.

Last month, Baker stated that his opinions were his own and did not reflect those of the City of Neosho. A statement issued by the City Attorney's office on Feb. 20 presented the same position.

Seven individuals were on hand to speak to the council. Four expressed their displeasure regarding Baker's views, one supported gun rights and two came to address the issue of the use of a Confederate flag in promotional materials for the 6th annual Mason-Dixon Blessing of the Bikes, scheduled for April 29 in Neosho. Each was allotted five minutes to speak.

All council members were present with the exception of Councilman William Doubek,who had asked to be excused from the meeting. After approval of the agenda for the meeting as well as minutes from both open and closed sessions of the Feb. 20 meeting, the council heard visitor business.

The first visitor to speak was Sherri Ellis of Neosho.

"I am here tonight to defend my like-minded friends and myself," Ellis said. "Many of us are deeply offended and appalled by recent remarks made on social media and to the press by the mayor of our hometown. His broad generalizations and unapologetic rhetoric was unprofessional and extremely biased."

Ellis stated she is among seven generations of Newton County residents and has called Neosho home for 40 years. According to Ellis, many of those who spoke out in opposition of the raffle suffered consequences for their opinions.

"Many of us were viciously online, by phone, and even visited at work in the many attempts to silence our opposition to the gun raffle," she said.

She has a personal connection to the team and although she opposes the raffle, she supports the team.

"I plan to support and proudly attend the 9U traveling baseball team games because I have an athlete on that team that I love with all my heart," she said. "Although I do not agree on Coach Patterson's choice to raffle a weapon of mass murder, I believe his dedication to these athletes is very real."

Other visitors who spoke in opposition to the raffle and against Baker included Merlin White. White said, "I do not agree with Mr. Baker and he does not represent my views. An explanation, in my opinion, is due."

Susanna Smith also shared her views.

"People who can see only one side of any given issue tend to demonize the other side," said Smith. "This is what is happening in the case of our mayor accusing a group of concerned Neosho citizens of being hateful outsiders. This is most certainly not the case. We want our schools to be safe and raffling off a military-style rifle does not send that message to the community or to anyone who may want to visit here."

Tim Cox also spoke out with his thoughts.

"I have been a part of this community since 1964," he told the council. "I've been back for 10 years. The only thing I'm really here to speak about is you. It's not about guns. It's about the brand that you wear."

Cox talked about his career experiences in television media in the area and in marketing in Las Vegas, explaining his definition of brand and the importance of it.

"When I saw the read out of your interview - I don't listen to radio or watch television - I was appalled and upset that someone elected as a member of the city council," said Cox. "You're here to represent the city, not your personal views. I can only say to you that you offered to apology. I would suggest that council review this as a matter of ethics. In lieu of an apology, I would like to see this delved into farther to see what your intentions are."

One individual spoke in favor of gun rights and Baker. John Broom stated, "The raffle had nothing to do with city government. The comments Ben Baker made were as Ben Baker. The raffle was scheduled before the Parkland tragedy. The parents were the ones who decided to accept the offer of the rifle. If we're going to stop raffling AR-15s, we're going to have to stop raffling firearms at all."

He cited both the Second Amendment and the Dick Act of 1903 in support of his belief that Americans have the right to own any type of firearms, including military style weapons. Bruin stated that everything from percussion loading black powder weapons to modern firearms would have to be banned. He also said that other weapons, ranging from bows and arrows, knives, and hammers would have to be banned, which he opposed.

"I am a college professor who resigned from a job because I was name-called and humiliated by my department head because I was a conservative," Broom said. He ended by saying, "Mayor Baker, I salute you."

Those who spoke on the subject and those who attended to demonstrate their support appeared to be in agreement that some action by the city council against Baker is necessary although no formal request for Baker's resignation was made.

Two other visitors addressed the council regarding the Confederate flag used as part of the promotional materials for the annual Mason-Dixon Blessing of the Bikes. They both contended that the flag appeared in advertising for the event on a page owned by the City of Neosho. The first to speak, Nanda Nunnelly Sparks, introduced herself.

"I would like to come out and say that I am one of the loud mouthed, trouble causing liberals but that's not why I'm here," said Sparks. "My grandfather was descended from slaves. It means a lot to me that the city is open to everyone."

About the flag, Sparks stated, "It is not OK to have a Confederate flag on a city page. It's 2018. Things need to change. They need to move forward. I hope you will reconsider that needs to change."

The other visitors who also objected to the use of the Confederate flag was Jerry Sparks.

"I just recently moved to the Neosho area," said Jerry Sparks. "I'm not an audience plant. I have no agenda. I believe politics are a big responsibility. I just saw this about the bike event. I have a big problem with it, because of the use of the Confederate flag. Any person who went into this must be dumbfounded. It's such a disgrace, a disgrace to you and you are promoting hate."

The annual Blessing of the Bikes is not a City of Neosho event but is sponsored each year by Covenant Motorcycle Ministries, Chapter 0702. The event includes a church service and games as well as the blessing of the bikes.

Baker introduced each speaker and thanked each for their participation. Council members remained silent as each individual spoke. After the visitors were finished, Baker made a statement.

"I do appreciate voicing their opinion," he said. "This is the United States and we do have First Amendment rights to speak our minds. What's disappointing is that what I've said is not a city issue. So this is not the time or place (to discuss). I can have a civil conversation with anyone about anything. I would be happy to sit down with any of you. If you want to oppose my views as a private citizen, you have every right to do that. You can exercise your right to vote."

Baker stated that the council needed to move forward with the business on the agenda and that the visitor's portion of the meeting had concluded.

Community members who spoke out with their views still want to see Baker reprimanded for publicizing his views.

"Citizens of our town are afraid to openly speak up for their beliefs for fear of losing their jobs," Ellis stated during her remarks. "People who cannot display a sign, sticker, or wear a hat for fear of retaliation. We are fed up with being second class citizens and ostracized in our own hometown. We are your neighbors. We are doctors, trauma nurses, teachers and clergy. We are church members and volunteers. We are veterans, gun owners and Gold Star families. We own homes, pay taxes, and vote. We shop, dine, work, play and live in this town."

No additional comment was made by Baker or any other council members.