Loudon commissioners, residents continue comment feud

Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com

LOUDON Loudon County residents concerned about protecting public comment at government meetings continued their battle before county commissioners Monday.

Richard Truitt, a frequent speaker at commission meetings, told commissioners that people should be allowed to speak to commission on item on or off the agenda at the beginning and end of each commission meeting.

During a March 2 meeting Commission Chairman Steve Harrelson consolidated public comments usually held at the beginning and end of each meeting to a single comment period at the beginning of each meeting. Residents can comment at that time about items on or not on the agenda.

Wayne Schnell, a leader in the Loudon County Tea Party, said his organization was very concerned with government transparency and the First Amendment right of the public to speak.

Larry Anderson, a Loudon County businessman, said the system in Loudon County that controls public comment is costing the county money because other businessmen do not want to invest in a county that is run by the "good ol' boys network."

Mayor Buddy Bradshaw responded that he and the entire commission were committed to honest and transparent government.

"I love our county," he said.

Loudon resident Richard Anklin is concerned that the change to the comment section of the agenda was not voted on by the commission. He expressed his concern in an email to several commissioners before the meeting this week.

"There is a distinct lack of an agenda item regarding the change to the agenda that was discussed at the commission meeting on March 2nd. Would either of you, or both of you, request that an item be added for a discussion to achieve a vote on the changed agenda as was said in the Feb. 23rd 2orkshop and at the end of the commission meeting?" Anklin wrote.

Harrelson said that the changes were never designed to reduce public comment.

"Everybody around this table is trying to do the best for Loudon County," he said.

Harrelson told commissioners at a previous meeting he made the change to the agenda based on advice from County Attorney Robert Bowman.

There is no requirement that residents be allowed to speak at public meetings, Bowman said.

"The Open Meetings Act, TCA 8-44-102, does not require a public body to offer a comment period about items on the regular agenda. The fact that the Loudon County Commission offers a single comment period goes above and beyond what the law requires. You have violated no laws by limiting comments to a single defined period," Bowman wrote.

"The courts have repeatedly upheld a governmental entity's right to restrict speech at council meetings etc. On the other hand, the courts grant citizens much greater rights to speak on public streets and parks," he said.