Who’s on first? Commission changes rules, puts public discussion of non-agenda items at end of meetings

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By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

Blount County commissioners moved public input of items not on the agenda to the end of their meetings, but not without much discussion and debate. Commissioners debated for about an hour Thursday night, Feb. 15, before voting 12 to nine in
favor of the change.

The issue has been stirring debate since December when commission Holden Lail suggested the commission business should come before comment from the public on "items not on the agenda." An ad-hoc committee, headed by commissioner Steve Samples, has been considering rules changes since then. Lail said this was to allow time at the start of each session to discuss and decide county business. The move sparked protest from more than 20 individuals who gathered on the courthouse steps before the December commission meeting.

After Thursday’s meeting adjourned, and people were leaving the room, one commissioner appeared upset with a radio reporter. Commissioner Ron French said Truth Radio owner Harry Grothjahn was misinterpreting his words on the issue.
French told Grothjahn he would serve in the military again to allow individuals the right to free speech, "but you won’t put words in my mouth," to which Grothjahn replied, "that’s why I recorded you."

Grothjahn said later that during the conversation with the commissioner, he told French his actions contradicted his words and that he "had put God to the back of the bus."

"He simply heard me say, ‘What you did was put God to the back of the bus.’ He didn’t hear all I said. He thought I was criticizing the fact they put free speech to back of meeting. Actually I called him at home later that night and apologized and made sure he understood I wasn’t trying to put words in his mouth but trying to point out the difference between what he said and what he did."

Following the vote, Linda King of Laws Chapel Road said she was displeased with the decision. King founded Citizens for Blount County’s Future and often speaks to items not on the agenda.

" I think they’re taking citizens’ rights away," she said. She said that commissioners should be willing to listen to citizens speak to items not on the agenda for three minutes each at the beginning of the meetings, not push it to the end. "There are people who have kids at home. There are lots of people who can’t sit here for three hours," she said.

The 12-9 vote also mandated a decision that, from here forward, any rules change requires a two-thirds vote of the commission. It also changed the title of county executive to county mayor.

Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett read a letter to the commission from County Mayor Jerry Cunningham, who was out of town. In the letter, Cunningham said he disagreed with moving proclamations out of commission meetings,which was proposed in one amendment, but said he would agree to hear public input of items not on the agenda in his office provided those comments were limited to three minutes each.

Commissioner Bob Proffitt advocated keeping public input of items not on the agenda near the front of the agenda. "I think its extremely important public input stay up near the front," he said.

After amendments to the motion failed, commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves made a motion to accept three of the four parts of Samples amendment, excluding the move to have proclamations done in the county mayor’s office. Discussion then focused on the commissioners’ penchant for yielding or giving individuals longer than three minutes to speak.

Commissioner Gerald Kirby said often it is a matter of giving citizens a few more minutes of time. "If someone needs more than three minutes to explain themselves, I don’t think they should be held to three minutes," he said.

Reeves said that if time wasn’t the issue of allowing public input, then why was the commission discussing it? Samples said he only proposed the amendments to make the process more efficient. "The only reason I thought we were dealing with this was to streamline," he said. "I’m simply trying to pose an option."

Pitts Reeves’ motion was defeated by a vote of 14 to seven. Commissioner John Keeble then made a motion to keep public input of items not on the agenda where it was. "I move we keep it where it is," he said. "We’ve spent more time talking about it. It’s a format we’ve had for 15 to 20 years, and it has worked."

Commission David Ballard then made a motion to refer the motion of the rules change back to the ad-hoc committee. Keeble then withdrew his motion and seconded Ballard’s motion.

Commissioner Gary Farmer disagreed with putting off the decision. "We’re delaying," he said. "We need to deal with this tonight."

Commissioner Mark Hasty agreed. "We need to vote it up or down," he said.

Near the end of the meeting, French then said commissioners needed to simply see the issue of the debate for what it was - moving public input of items not on the agenda to the end of meetings. "I spent four years in the service defending people’s right to speak," he said of his years in the military.

French said the whole issue was a matter of courtesy. "We’ll extend citizens the courtesy to speak, but you extend us the courtesy to conduct business when it’s time to," he said. "We’re not taking people’s right to speak away. We’re not going to adjourn meetings before you speak. Part of the commission’s business is listening to citizens speak."

After French spoke, the commission voted 12 to nine to approve the original motion. While some commissioners seemed confused on what exactly had just happened, Commission Chair Robert Ramsey said the vote meant that public input of
items not on the agenda would now be heard near the end of the meeting.

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