Committee to study public’s right to speak to 'Items Not on Agenda' at commission meetings

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By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

Blount County commissioners on an ad-hoc committee to study removing public comment on non-agenda items from full commission meetings haven’t met yet, but Commission Chairman Robert Ramsey said he expected the five members will meet soon.

The commissioners chosen for the committee were Ramsey, Tonya Burchfield, Gary Farmer, Bob Proffitt and Steve Samples. Reached by phone Tuesday, Ramsey said he expected those commissioners picked at the December meeting to confer with commissioner secretary Rhonda Pitts soon and pick a time to convene.

Ramsey said he understood many other commissioners also would like to consider the issue at a workshop. Holden Lail and Steve Hargis sponsored the motion at the Dec. 21 commission meeting. While supporters said the idea was to streamline public comment to the public service or intergovernmental committees, opponents of the measure said it was meant to squelch public comment on public business.

Ramsey said he could never support anything that would jeopardize or limit the communication between the public and the commission. "I would not have voted for that specific item," he said.

Ramsey said there may be some question of his interpretation of Robert’s Rules of Order. "We’ve done things differently
over the years," Ramsey said. "This set of guidelines we have now are really a legacy from previous commissioners. If there are some things these commissioners want to do to formulize our guidelines better, which I think is wonderful. I would never try to limit or work against communication."

Proffitt said he felt public input should be allowed on agenda and non-agenda items alike. "There should be definite restrictions in time and courtesy and possibly a limit on total time," he said.

Whether the public comment is on agenda items or non-agenda items, allowing the public to speak to the commissioners is vital. "It’s important to have input in both places," Proffitt said.

Samples said that he was in favor of anything commissioners can do to make the commission meetings and the way the public has to deal with the commission more efficient. "That being said, I realize the voters are the one who sent me there."

Samples said. "We are the very first line of a democracy, the ones that deal with voters every day. I am certainly in no way am going to try to eliminate the voice of the voters of Blount County."

Before the Dec. 21 meeting began, more than 40 people stood on the steps of the Blount County Courthouse and
protested the motion. Blount Today spoke to several of the protesters.

"I think it’s appalling, elected officials should want our input," Merry Spurrier of Maryville said. "They should not make it more difficult."

"If these commissioners aren’t willing to listen to us, they don’t deserve our votes. It’s a shame someone I voted for brought this proposal," Paul Fortsch of Blount County said in referring to Commissioner Lail.

Laurie Leslie of Walland referred to the three minute rule imposed on citizens during the input for items not on the agenda for commission meetings. "I just don’t think three minutes is too much to ask to hear what is on a citizen’s mind," Leslie said.

Lail said his whole point in making the motion was to make the process of public input work more efficiently and to ensure that public comment on non-agenda items went before the subcommittees in which their specific concerns could be addressed. Lail said he didn’t know there was a protest or gathering going on at the front steps of the courthouse before the meeting. "I didn’t know that was going on," Lail said. "I would have been glad to speak to them. It was suggested as a way of doing our job better."

Lail said Commissioner Mike Walker’s motion to create an ad hoc committee for the issue was a good idea. "I think utilizing an ad hoc committee and allowing them to look at these things is a wise exercise in the democratic process," he said.

Maryville attorney Charles Clifford spoke against removing public comment from the commission meetings for items not on the agenda. "There is no more cherished a freedom that the right to be heard," he said.

Larry Shore supported allowing comment for items not on the full commission meeting agenda. "I feel we should always allow citizens to bring up items not on the agenda," he said.

Linda King, along with Harry Grothjahn, helped lead the pre-meeting protest. "As commissioners elected to represent us, you should be encouraging, rather than discouraging us from expressing ourselves," King said at the meeting.

  • In other business, the commission voted to allow Sheriff James Berrong to allocate $250,000 to build a driving track for the sheriff’s deputies to train on. The money was from federal drug funds given to the office for such capital expenses and not from the county general fund for normal operating expenses.

Commissioner David Graham took issue with the allocation and said he couldn’t vote for it when the school resource office program needed funds. Berrong answered questions from the commissioners before they voted. Seven of the 21 voted against the measure.

  • In another matter brought before the commission, Rick Yeager of Maryville spoke regarding the county’s animal control policies and the need to license animals in the county as a means of defraying costs for animal control. "It’s vitally important to the citizens of Blount County to have animal control," he said.
    Yeager said a long-term fix is needed regarding animal control. Whoever does animal control needs to have county authority and not just be volunteers because, with county authority, they would be able to take animals out of bad situations.

The issue has come to a head because the Maryville Animal Shelter, operated by the Maryville Police Department, notified the county in 2006 that they needed to substantially increase the amount they were budgeting toward animal control because the majority of animals at the city facility were coming from the unincorporated county areas. Since mid-2006, the county has been contracting month-to-month with Maryville city on animal control.

"I don’t think this commission realizes when the contract runs out, people in the county won’t have anyone to call (for animal control)," Yeager said.

Yeager, an organizer with the animal foster network ArfNets, said more than the county’s budgeted $138,000 annually needs to be spent on animal control. A bond issue for $300,000 could run the operation until something permanent could be built, he said.

"That gives the county a year and a half to put together a proposal and get something going for a long-term fix," he said.

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