Commission tables proposal to formalize process to fill vacancies, oks referendum for sales tax increase

Commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves wanted a more formal process for filling vacancies that occur on County Commission and judicial seats. She proposed a new process to be used for filling the vacancy for General Sessions judge and commissioner Bob Ramsey’s seat.

The proposal, jointly sponsored by Pitts Reeves, Monika Murrell, Joe McCulley and David Ballard, was tabled at the commission meeting, raising the ire of Pitts Reeves.

“I don’t understand why you weren’t willing to discuss making this part of our process,” Pitts Reeves said. “I just don’t understand why we couldn’t have discussed it, and I’m disappointed.”

The proposed process would have included workshops where candidates for each position could appear, present their resumes and speak on behalf of themselves. Commissioners could ask questions and engage in public discussion, said Pitts Reeves. Citizen input also would be allowed as in all standard commission meetings.

Pitts Reeves said after the meeting the process laid out by the state needs to more formalized. “Maybe we would have more people participate,” she said. “My goal is always to get more people to participate. There has to be more talent than the small pool of talent you see over and over again.”

Commissioner Scott Helton said the commission has filled vacancies on several occasion during the time he has served as commissioner. The members accept nominations from commissioners and the public.

“I don’t understand why we’re having to rewrite what we’re already governed under,” Helton said. “I have every confidence the chair can have a fair process. They’ll make it an inclusive process,” he said.

Pitts Reeves said she believed it would be better to have meetings ahead of time.

“The way we’re going into it, we’ll go in without a way of knowing who’s nominated and without advance opportunity for the public to hear from candidates,” she said. “It’s all going to happen at the same time. To me it would’ve been better to have meeting ahead of time.”

Past commissioners have chosen judges Terry Denton, Hugh E. DeLozier, William Brewer and David Duggan to fill vacancies under the current system.

“I think each and every one have done an excellent job, and I’ve got every confidence in the world the people of Blount County can make decisions on who they want judges to be. They’ve backed up the appointments of this commission in the past,” Helton said.

Judge Brewer was at the meeting to help explain the judicial appointment process. Brewer said the Rules of Judiciary specify in Cannon 5 limits or restrains on what a judge or candidate for judge can say or do. The limitations apply no matter if the candidate for judge is an elected or appointed position, he said.

“It’s fairly simple as it applies. It specifically states that a candidate shall not make pledges or promises of conduct in office other than to faithfully and impartially perform in that office. Candidates shall not make statements that commit that candidate,” Brewer said. “The judge can only comment to the appointing authority his or her interest in that position, inform them of his qualifications and that’s it.”

It was at this point Helton moved to cut off discussion by tabling the motion. Commissioner Gary Farmer seconded the motion and chairman Bob Ramsey stopped all discussion.

Pitts Reeves then asked for a roll call vote. Voting against the motion to table were David Ballard, Reeves, Joe McCulley, Monika Murrell and Ron French. Proffitt passed, and the other commissioners voted to table the measure.

During public input for items not on the agenda, Pitts Reeves said it never occurred to her to have an item tabled in order to stop discussion on a resolution.

“No one was willing to hear my argument. I’m disappointed. I understand there’s a certain way this commission does things. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that,” she said.

Pitts Reeves said the commission took away any official way for the public to have comment or input.

Commissioner David Graham said state law trumps what ordinances the commission passes. “I would expect this process is going to go according to state law and if the county commission rules follow that law then great but if they don’t, we’re breaking state law. State law trumps whatever we do,” he said.

Commissioner Gerald Kirby said current state law allows for public input. Interested candidates submit their resumes to commission by putting them in each commissioner’s box. “Anybody interested in being a judge can put their resumes in the boxes of the commissioners to let the commissioners know they’re interested in running for that position,” he said.

French said he has had several constituents voice opinions regarding how the two positions will be filled. “I can’t speak for all of us, but our phone lines are open. If you’re interested in the position, give your commissioners a call,” he said.

Following the meeting, County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said the procedure the commission has used for years to make appointments gives ample opportunity for public input.

“The resolution, as I read it, just tracked the public law we’ve followed for years. The only difference was it added workshops. If something is not broken, you don’t go trying to fix it,” he said. “It has worked perfectly for many years with ample public input. This would have drag it out unnecessarily. Some workshops just amount to additional bureaucratic committees. I have theory the way we got the camel was that the Lord appointed a committee to build a horse.”

County office holders elected in August will take office on Sept. 2. The Blount County Commission will hold a special called meeting on Sept. 9 to fill the vacancies when Duggan was elevated to Circuit Court and Ramsey was elevated to the State House of Representatives.

Joe Gallagher of Louisville said he supported the appointment process proposed by Pitts Reeves. “It’s fair and open and gives people an opportunity to be heard,” he said.

In other action, former Blount County commissioner Jeff McCall spoke on behalf of Blount Countians for Educational Excellence, the group advocating the half-cent sales tax hike. “We believe it will be a very important part of the funding stream for Blount County in the future,” he said.

Commissioner chair Bob Ramsey moved the motion to put the referendum on the November ballot ahead of public input for items on the agenda. The commissioners approved it before anyone had a chance to comment during the meeting.

Harry Grothjahn said he was disappointed the public wasn’t allowed to comment on the proposed sales tax referendum. “I’m offended you would disrespect the people of Blount County in such a blatant manner,” he said.

Also in the meeting, the commission passed a 5-feet stream buffer resolution to protect water quality. The county had been fined $5,000 for missing a February deadline. Cunningham said the fine was arbitrary.

“This has been a very difficult issue for the commission. Because there’s absolutely no guidance from the state at all other than it has to be reasonable and you ask what is reasonable and they can’t define what is reasonable. There’s no mechanism in the state to tell what is reasonable,” the mayor said. “I think what they did by passing the 5-foot rule was probably the smart thing to do, It puts the ball in state’s court to force them tell us what’s reasonable.”

In budgetary matters, commissioners approved $125,570 for three extra school resource officers. With deputies moved off the street and those brought on by this funding, the number deputies in the schools rose from 11 to 18.

Commissioner David Graham has criticized Sheriff James Berrong in the past for moving SROs out of the schools and back onto the street during budget cuts.

“I believe that’s $125,570 for extra SROs,” Graham said. “We funded 21 (last year). This makes 24. Last year, we had 11, now we’re up to 18. I’d like to put on the record how much this commission has pledged in funding for the SRO program,” he said.

Murrell said she wants the money to go where it is supposed to go. “I want to make sure this money is on the record to go to SRO officers,” she said.

It was Commission Chairman Robert Ramsey’s last meeting as a commissioner.

“This will be the last opportunity to lead the commission from the chair,” Ramsey said, at the end of the meeting. “I am humbled by the support you’ve given me over the years, and I have to say Blount County government is blessed with Christian cooperation and compassion,” he said.

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