By Scott Robertson
The nays have it. After six weeks of controversy, one cancelled meeting, two petition drives, and the rewiring of the audio-visual system at the George Jaynes Justice Center, a controversial resolution regarding traditional marriage has been voted down.
More than 50 Washington County residents spoke regarding the resolution during a public comment session at Monday night/Tuesday morning’s seven-hour meeting of the Washington County Commission.
The resolution would have called upon Tennessee state legislators to take all legal action to affirm the Tennessee Constitution’s contention that marriage may only exist between one man and one woman.
The citizens who spoke to the commission were almost exactly split down the middle, with one more speaking against the measure than for it during the three-plus-hour session. The commission then mirrored the citizens’ sentiments, voting down the measure by a single vote.
It was a bitter pill for supporters of the measure, who had, earlier in the evening, fought off an effort to keep the resolution from being heard.
But the commissioner who originally brought forth the resolution indicated he would respect the will of the commission. Forrest Boreing said, “Of course I would have liked to have seen it go the other way, but the commission spoke, and I stand by that. I have no problem with it. I took a stand, and that was my obligation.”
The Rule 8 Debate
The meeting began with a motion from Commissioner Joe Wise to remove the resolution from the agenda. Wise quoted Rule 8E of the commission’s Policies of Procedures, which states, “The agenda and resolutions of the Board of County Commissioners is not an appropriate forum to make political statements regarding federal, state and other jurisdictions that do not directly affect county government.”
Said Wise in making the motion, “I recognize this is an important issue for our country and our state, and I support those bodies with authority over questions like these to bring them up. But we are not that body…In no way does this resolution affect how the county conducts its business.”
Commissioner Mark Larkey opposed Wise’s motion, saying, “Resolution 16-01-01 is far from meaningless to Washington County. In fact, it is truly critical that we communicate this county legislative body’s position and expectation of issues that affect Washington County residents that our state legislators have governance over, for they have influence to share that these concerns be heard at the federal level.”
The debate over Rule 8 continued for 51 minutes before a vote was cast. Commissioner Robbie McGuire originally voted for Wise’s motion, but, when what appeared to be the final tally had 13 commissioners in support, McGuire reversed his vote.
The vote was confusing to many in attendance, including some commissioners, who expected a majority vote of those present to win the day. Washington County Commission rules, however, state that a majority of the full commission (13 of 25) is necessary to pass any measure, regardless of how many or how few members vote.
More commissioners voted for Wise’s motion than voted against it, but only by a 12-11 tally. So the commission opened the floor for public comment.
Dignity and decorum
More than 700 people attended the meeting, spread over four courtrooms, each wired for video and sound. For just over three hours, county residents stated their cases before the commission. Those who supported the resolution spoke of religious beliefs, of states’ rights, and of problems with the United States Supreme Court. Those who opposed it spoke of equality, economic development and love.
While strong feelings were apparent on both sides, the chair had to gavel down minor outbursts from the gallery or inappropriately inflammatory comments from speakers fewer than half a dozen times during the entirety of the proceedings. “I loved the public comment,” said Boreing after the meeting. “I’m glad of the number of people who showed up and spoke up… I was glad to see the common thread of respect for one another through the whole situation. That made me happy.”
Under commission rules, each citizen had three minutes to speak, and most had timed their comments to fit into that restriction. The first citizen to speak, Rev. Roy Yelton, asked for 30 more seconds when his time was up, but was told the three-minute rule was firm. After that, citizens almost uniformly respected both the rules and a spirit of civility.
“If we had allowed that gentleman, who was the very first to speak, more than three minutes, from then, where would we have stopped?” said Commissioner Larry England after the meeting. “As it was, we had great arguments on both sides.”
Minority Rules Again
Following closure of the public comment session, commissioners debated the issue. At one point Commissioner Lee Chase asked Boreing to explain what legal recourse he thought state legislators could take, since the issue has already been voted down in committee in Nashville. When Boreing repeated he wanted to send a message in support of the state constitution to Nashville, an apparently exasperated Chase asked, “Why?”
After several commissioners took the opportunity to state their positions, Boreing requested the vote be a roll call vote taken in reverse order, from tenth district to first. More commissioners voted to pass resolution 16-01-01 than voted against it, but again, only by a 12-11 total. The resolution failed.
Following the meeting, Chairman Greg Matherly said he understood the confusion, but that, “for this body, 13 is the magic number.” The only situation in recent memory in which that was not the case, Matherly said, was when Commissioner Tom Foster resigned his seat in late 2015, leaving the body with only 24 members for two months. “During that period, the number went down to 12,” Matherly said. “But as long as we have a full board of commissioners, it takes 13 votes to pass.”
Commissioner Katie Baker, the most outspoken opponent of the resolution on the commission, said after the meeting that the closeness of both the public sentiment and the votes underlined in her mind the folly of attempting to send Nashville a single unified message on behalf of all citizens. “To have a nearly 50/50 split of people speaking for and speaking against clearly illustrates not only the divisiveness of the issue, but how difficult it is for us to weigh in as a commission representing an entire county.”