Loudon commission defends new public comment rules
The Loudon County Commission has voted to approve controversial changes to procedural rules governing the conduct of its meetings.
The new rules give the commission chairman broad authority to control when and for how long citizens can speak at commission meetings.
The rules, adopted Tuesday, now limit individual speakers to five minutes per item at the beginning of the meeting. The total period for comment may be limited to 30 minutes. The commission chairman has the right to make changes to the rules based on specific circumstances.
Steve Harrelson, who was unanimously voted to remain chairman for the 2015-16 term, said he would still consider increasing the public comment period on "hot topics." "The 30 minutes in not set in stone," he said.
Harrelson said the changes, unanimously approved by the government affairs committee, are in line with the rules in effect until the 2003.
"It really doesn't give any more power to the chairman than in 2003," he said.
County resident Richard Truitt spoke against limiting public comment, arguing that Knox County has allowed public comments to run as long as two hours.
When the changes to the public comments were proposed in March, Truitt made a public records request to review emails between county officials to learn more about how the adjustments were first proposed.
He was criticized by county officials for making a broad request for public records that cost the county more than $6,000. Truitt said that it was the county's decision to turn his request over to the county attorney that led to the high cost of compliance.
Wayne Schnell, a leader in the Loudon County Tea Party, told county commissioners that getting as much public input as possible was critical to good government. "Anyone who shows up should be able to speak," he said.
Schnell also cautioned commission members about giving too much power to the chairman.
Sometimes a point can't be explained in five minutes, said Tellico Village resident Richard Anklin, who asked commissioners to keep an open mind when considering the length of comments.
Commissioner Earlena Maples said she was confident the chairman would only invoke the five-minute rule when appropriate.
Loudon County resident Pat Hunter said the most recent changes to the policies were given to the commissioners at the meeting but not citizens. They should have been posted online so that members of the public could view them in advance and express their opinion at the meeting before the vote.
Commissioner Van Shaver said the 30-minute rule would not be invoked unless necessary. "Nothing will limit anyone's right or ability to address the commission. It simply gives the chairman the ability, if it's ever needed, to preserve the order of the meeting or to prevent anyone from filibustering in a meeting," Shaver said.
Another change to the rules involved an anti-bullying policy. Mayor Buddy Bradshaw said the county attorney recommended the policy be adopted. "It takes a lot of liability off the county," he said.