By Scott Robertson
What had promised to be a busy meeting of the Washington County Commission Monday night was over in roughly half an hour, as commissioners voted to defer the entire agenda because the crowd of concerned citizens was too large to be seated in the gallery.
Between 300 and 400 citizens attended the meeting. The gallery seats roughly 140. Most who signed a sheet requesting the opportunity to speak during the public comment portion were there to address a single issue.
Resolution 16-01-01 was listed as “A resolution to support the historical institution and legal contract solemnizing the relationship of one man and one woman as the only legally recognized marital contract in the State of Tennessee.” The resolution came to the commission from Commissioner Forrest Boreing through the Public Safety Committee.
Just before the meeting was gaveled to order, Washington County Sheriff’s Captain Larry Denny announced that because of fire marshal’s regulations, anyone in the gallery who did not have a seat would have to leave the room. Those who were standing then left in an orderly fashion.
When the meeting was called to order, Commissioner Robbie McGuire moved that the introduction of the new Clerk and Master by Chancellor John Rambo and the audit report from Blackburn, Childers and Steagall auditor Melissa Steagall Jones be moved to the top of the agenda. Commissioner Lee Chase seconded the motion, which was unanimously approved. The vote proved entirely academic, however, as Chairman Greg Matherly then raised the issue of crowd size.
“Our meeting room is not sufficient to hold everyone this evening,” Matherly said. “This is a public meeting and everyone should be able to attend it. However, we have many people in the hallway.”
Matherly then asked County Attorney Tom Seeley to address the Open Meetings Act. Seeley told the commission that an attorney general’s opinion on large crowds at public meetings required the commission to take, “reasonable steps” to allow the overflow crowd to hear the proceedings.
“I don’t think we are in a position to hook up any kind of video feed,” Seeley continued. “So again, since we do not have the capability to allow the overflow crowd to hear what is going on in these proceedings then we would be violating that rule.”
Matherly then recognized Commissioner David Tomita, who also sits on the Johnson City Commission. “I have consulted with my fellow city commissioner (Ralph Van Brocklin was sitting behind Tomita), and we believe Johnson City would be able to offer up the Millennium Centre, which is a significantly larger meeting room with audiovisual capabilities that would allow anyone not in the room to at least view the meeting and hear what is going on.”
Tomita then moved to defer resolution 16-01-01. “I would make the motion that we remove that from tonight’s agenda and move it to a special called meeting to be held – I won’t promise the Millennium Centre, but I think we can work that out, so we’ll say – at a location to be determined sufficient to allow everyone access.” Commissioner Tom Krieger seconded Tomita’s motion.
Commissioner Steve Light asked if the delay was necessary, and Seeley repeated, “I think we would be at risk of violating the Open Meetings Act if we did not take reasonable steps to allow these people who are out in the hallway to hear what is going on. That is their right. This is a public meeting. That would be my recommendation.”
Commissioner Robbie Tester then asked, “Can we just defer the entire meeting?” When Tomita offered no objection, Tester offered that idea as an amendment to Tomita’s motion.
Commissioner Todd Hensley asked how the commission could justify derailing all of its business for one issue. That question went unanswered.
The amendment passed on a roll call vote, 12 to 11. The amended motion then passed 13-10, also on a roll call vote, and the meeting ended.
Tuesday morning, Matherly said he had already begun looking into closed circuit feeds for the justice center, similar to graduation overflow feeds at local schools.
Regardless of the venue for the called meeting, the commission must now give five days legal public notice of the time and place, and the called meeting must happen within 15 days of Monday’s abbreviated meeting.