County officials puzzled by 'constant drumbeat' of dissent
By Jeremy Styron
A week after a Lenoir City man criticized local government on the handling of his open records request and recent changes to the county’s procedures on monthly meetings, Loudon County commissioners addressed concerns from residents on the public comment policy.
Per the board’s policy, commission may, at the discretion of Chairman Steve Harrelson, limit the total public comment time allocation to 30 minutes at monthly meetings.
Earlier this year, commission removed a public comment period at the end of business meetings and kept a time for residents to speak at the beginning of each meeting.
“Other counties have issues, and their approach isn’t to silence the public like Loudon County,” Lenoir City resident Richard Truitt said during a workshop Monday. “... I saw 10 commissioners vote against the public’s right to speak. I hope you don’t say later you’re for open government.”
Commission Vice Chairwoman Earlena Maples said she disagreed with Truitt’s assessment.
“You had a right to speak; we just listened to you, and we listen to you” at most commission meetings, Maples said.
In a back-and forth, Truitt said commission decreased the public’s speaking time by removing the comment period at the end of meetings.
“You cut the right of the public to speak in half and put time restrictions on the right to speak; that’s what ya’ll did. You can’t change that,” Truitt said.
“We didn’t stop people from talking,” Maples said. “That’s what you just said.”
Commissioner Van Shaver said the board was under no obligation to allow public comments at meetings. “There is no right to speak at one of these meetings. Let’s make it real clear,” Shaver said. “We don’t have to permit any public comment. I’m from that side of the fence. I’m a huge fan of citizen activism. But why, how do you — Mr. (Richard) Anklin just had 9:22 (minutes). You just had 4:20. Every meeting everybody says anything they want to say.”
Shaver said commission will continue to allow those who want to speak the ability to do so, noting that he failed to understand the “constant drumbeat” that commission isn’t receptive to hearing from residents.
Lenoir City resident Pat Hunter asked commission why the board added the 30-minute limit on public comments.
Commissioner Bill Satterfield said the 30-minute window provides the board with a fail-safe in the event a large group attempts to conduct a kind of “filibuster” to prevent the county from conducting business on a particular issue.
“If there was no cutoff, if there was no limit of time they could come (to a meeting) with the intention of not letting the commission come to a vote or complete its business by allowing them to speak as long, as often or as many of them as wanted to,” Satterfield said.
Harrelson said he had no intention of limiting the public comment period.
“Since I’ve been chairman, since I’ve been on commission, anybody that’s wanted to speak has not been shut off by the former chairman or myself,” Harrelson said. “It’s not going to happen.”
Commissioner Henry Cullen said no resident has been “gaveled … down” or silenced while he has served on the board the past year.
“Last month’s workshop, we had a one-hour comment period and a 50-minute meeting,” Shaver said. “Tell me we’re not letting the public comment. How can you say that?”