The Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice is continuing its calls for the Riley County commission to begin offering online streams of its meetings, and for chairman Marvin Rodriguez to resign following comments the group is calling racist, grossly incorrect and insensitive.
At a virtual press conference Monday morning, organizers with MAPJ hosted several community members who called for the commission to make those changes and for Rodriguez to step down. Several of the community members noted that their fields, like education, had made the transition to online meetings in two weeks, so there was no excuse for the county commission to not offer the same.
In March, Rodriguez said he didn’t believe Manhattan was at high risk for coronavirus contagion, since the community does not have the same high population of Chinese residents as places like Italy, which had been seeing the worst coronavirus outbreak globally at the time.
After those comments made national news, Rodriguez apologized for the comments, while defending himself by saying he is not racist, as he eats Chinese food and has “some Chinese friends and stuff.” Riley County residents, including members of MAPJ, confronted Rodriguez at a commission meeting March 26, which Rodriguez was not present at but listened to by phone.
Kim Zito, a stay-at-home mom who recently moved to the area, said comments like Rodriguez’s lead to increased discrimination and attacks on minorities, and a false belief that coronavirus can only be caught from Chinese people.
“When a government official makes such an ignorant and misinformed comment — that Manhattan is safe because there aren’t many Chinese here — and then follows up with an explanation that doubles down on ignorance, that the Chinese deliberately spread the virus, it turns the dumb, backwards hillybilly comment into something vehemently dangerous, because it’s coming from a government official,” she said.
Dr. Preeti Singh, a primary care physician, said that while she was not speaking on behalf of any medical organization, she wanted to clarify that Rodriguez’s comments endanger citizens by leading them to believe that there isn’t a high risk for contagion in Manhattan since there aren’t as many Chinese people in the community as in other highly infected areas.
MAPJ organizers said that an online petition calling for Rodriguez’s resignation and for the commission to stream meetings had 624 signatures as of Monday morning. They said they plan on using the petition to continue to pressure Rodriguez to resign, and ahead of a June 1 deadline to file for election for the commission, they will potentially identify a candidate to run against Rodriguez.
Both Rodriguez, district 2 representative, and Ron Wells, district 3 representative, are up for re-election in November. Republican Greg McKinley, a member of the Riley City Council, is the sole candidate against Rodriguez as of Monday.
At Monday’s county commission meeting, Commissioner John Ford said with indication of community spread, he would like protocols for audio or digital meetings. Rodriguez said he had no comment on whether he had considered resigning.