A relatively routine Loudon County Commission meeting for various grant applications and budget amendments Monday night turned into about an hourlong discussion about the agenda, which featured a change to the public comment section.
During a Feb. 23 workshop, Commission Chairman Steve Harrelson floated a plan to include a public comment period at the beginning of each meeting on any topic. Previously, commission allowed public comments at the beginning of each regular monthly meeting to cover topics that were on the planned agenda and a second comment period at the end for off-topic items.
Members of the public and representatives from the local Tea Party voiced disapproval Monday with the new plan and the way it was implemented.
“The last change that was made it went through the government affairs committee and then was voted on by commission,” Richard Truitt of Lenoir City said. “That committee is still there. Why wasn’t that done?”
While a planned discussion about the change was on the Feb. 23 agenda, Harrelson did not provide details about the modification at the beginning of the meeting. Also during the workshop, Commissioner Matthew Tinker said in response to a question from the public that the full board would consider the agenda change at the regular monthly meeting and did not take votes at workshops.
During the recent meeting, Truitt said the public was being prevented from speaking by commission not disclosing more information about the change before the public comment period at the workshop.
Truitt said commission made the change to the agenda “unilaterally without giving the public any chance to comment, to study or speak on the matter. Is this how government is supposed to work? You haven’t even remotely followed your own policies and procedures, not even close.”
Tellico Village resident Richard Anklin said he did not know why the change was not on the regular agenda as a voting item.
“I remember asking specifically are y’all going to vote on it; Commissioner Tinker said we don’t vote in the workshop,” Anklin said.
Shirley Harrison of Lenoir City said some residents who could not attend commission meetings at 6 p.m. might benefit from the extra comment period near the end of the meeting.
“You need to give people a chance to come if they have a reason to speak to you and speak at the end of the meetings if they need to,” Harrison said. “Condensing this into one time at the beginning of the meetings is not enough.”
Lenoir City resident Pat Hunter argued that the county’s governmental affairs committee previously made recommendations to change commission policies, which were then voted on by the full commission.
“If you make unilateral decisions and you exclude the public and whatever we say doesn’t matter, then you don’t serve the public,” Hunter said. “You’re serving yourself. You have your own personal agenda.”
She said commission has followed the same procedures going back to the late 1980s.
“I can understand that you want to do your business, but your business is the public’s business,” Hunter said. “I have serious concerns about your deliberation process. The deliberation process must be an open process. We should know what you’re doing at all times. We should hold you accountable for your actions. You know, this is our tax money.”
Linda Noe, an attorney from Knoxville, also expressed disagreement with the agenda change, noting that Harrelson made the decision “to the detriment of the public.”
“Open government is the key to quality government, to government that is respected, to government that has legitimacy and authority,” Noe said.
Commissioner Earlena Maples said she did not know details about the agenda change until Harrelson brought it up at the workshop.
“I assumed we would vote on it,” Maples said. “I have no problem with voting on it.”
Commissioner Kelly Littleton-Brewster said she thought commission should table a decision and discuss it more at the next workshop.
Commissioner Harold Duff also said he didn’t know anything about the public comment section change until the workshop. He rebuked accusations that commission made any decisions behind closed doors.
Harrelson said he made the change after consulting with Loudon County attorney Bob Bowman and that setting the “content and form” of the agenda falls within the authority of the commission chairman.
“My thoughts were the whole time not to keep people from speaking,” Harrelson said. “Gosh, that’s the last thing Steve Harrelson would want ever want sit up here and do to the public. Why do I want to sit in this seat as chairman of this county commission and start limiting people to speak? That would be ludicrous on my part.”
He said even though he has the authority to set the agenda, he still wanted to bring the change before commission for consideration.
“It was not my desire and it’s never going to be my desire to limit discussion,” Harrelson said.
Commissioner Van Shaver said before April 2002, a public comment section appeared at the top of the agenda for items that were on the agenda and not on the agenda. In September of that year, on-topic discussions remained near the beginning of the meeting, while off-topic items were moved to the end.
Shaver said Harrelson was within his authority as chairman to set the agenda.
In other business, the board:
- Approved application and acceptance of a $74,500 grant for bulletproof vests for the Loudon County Sheriff’s Office. The grant requires a 50 percent match to come from Drug Fund 122.
- Approved application and acceptance of $10,000 per year for three years to go toward night-time seat belt usage awareness to come from the Tennessee Governor’s Highway Safety Office. No matching funds are required.
- Approved the application for a Pettway grant for the Lenoir City library, with no matching funds required.
- Accepted donations of $7,265 to Loudon County Sheriff’s Office for Project Lifesaver, $850 for the text-a-tip program and $10,470 for the Sheriff’s Office community awareness program.