By Scott Robertson
“We’ll meet again. Don’t know where. Don’t know when. But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.” -Vera Lynn
The Washington County Commission failed Monday night. Aside from having a prayer and saying the Pledge of Allegiance, the commission abdicated every duty it had.
To set the scene, the 140-some seats in the Courtroom 7 gallery were filled with interested constituents long before the advertised 6 p.m. starting time. Many more concerned citizens gathered in the hallway, with no way to see or hear the meeting. The highly publicized inclusion on the agenda of a resolution “to support the historical institution and legal contract solemnizing the relationship of one man and one woman as the only marital contract in Tennessee” brought well over 300 citizens to the George Jaynes Justice Center.
Because of the overflow crowd, the commission voted to defer action on its entire agenda until a special meeting could be called for some undetermined date at some undetermined larger venue. The commission then adjourned.
In the commission’s defense, it was obvious the discussion over the controversial resolution could not be held Monday night without depriving the citizens in the hallway of their right to attend the meeting. The commission did the right thing in deferring that item.
But that fact in no way absolves the commissioners of discharging their duties regarding every other item on the agenda. The commission could easily have voted to put off dealing with just the controversial resolution until a special meeting could be called at a larger venue, while allowing itself, after a short recess, to conduct the rest of Monday’s meeting as scheduled.
One commissioner told me after the Monday meeting there was no way to ensure that the room still wouldn’t have been full to overflowing once the controversial item had been removed from Monday’s agenda. There was, he pointed out, at least a pair of other items that might draw a good bit of public attention: the mayor’s plan to remove himself from the Budget Committee and the reapportionment vote.
And to that, I say, if Courtroom 7 would not bear the burden of the crowd for those discussions (unlikely), then the commission could have added those two items to the called meeting agenda and moved on with the long list of things that could still be accomplished.
To wit: The Washington County school system was eager to see a vote to issue capital outlay notes in the amount of $600,000 to begin work on a new K-8 school for Boones Creek. An executive session was planned in order to hear from the county attorney regarding pending litigation. The investment committee had, after several months of deliberation, readied an official county investment policy. The county audit was ready for the commission’s consideration, and the auditor from Blackburn Childers and Steagall was in attendance. Three tax increment financing packages were ready for discussion, with two developers (one of whom had driven from Knoxville) in attendance to answer any questions the commission might have. The highway department was asking for a letter supporting its request for state funding. There was a resolution regarding a county employee assistance program from Mountain States. There were rezoning requests. There were committee appointments. There were recognitions and proclamations. In short, there was all the business the commissioners have taken the responsibility of conducting on behalf of the taxpayers every month.
Only they didn’t.
And they don’t really have a specific idea when or where they’ll be able to. They know they have to give adequate public notice of the meeting time, so it’ll be more than five days after the aborted regular meeting. They also know, if they’ve read TCA 5-5-105, the convening date shall not be more than 15 days from the original meeting date.
Where will the meeting take place? Dang if they know. The Millennium Centre is a possibility. That ballroom held a similar-sized crowd at the TVA Boone Dam public meeting a few months back. But that only works if the crowd doesn’t grow past the facility’s capacity, as it might, with more time for community organizers on both sides to work. Freedom Hall is a possibility, as is the mini-dome. But those options all assume a county commission can conduct a special called meeting outside the county seat. It would be preferable to most if the justice center could be equipped with a closed circuit video feed allowing the next meeting to be held in Jonesborough.
One thing we do know. Whenever the meeting is held, everyone should settle in for the long haul. If the commission follows its own rules and allows three minutes to every county resident who wishes to speak, and 300 people sign up, that’s up to 15 hours of public comment before the first commissioner speaks.
That fact, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. The constituents’ voices must be heard.
The bad thing is that the commission has left itself at least a couple more hours of unfinished, important business once the controversial issue has been addressed. They’ll be late getting to it, and there’s no good reason it had to be that way.