By Scott Robertson
Monday night I witnessed something that amazes me more every time I think about it. I watched a large group of evangelical conservatives and a large group of gay rights activists sit in the same room for several hours with no fistfights, no outright name calling, and frankly, less drama than one might expect in a discussion of property taxes.
There were disparate views, to be sure. But with very few exceptions, each side tolerated the presence of the other with at least a veneer of, “I think you are as wrong as one person can possibly be, but I don’t hate you.”
The Washington County Commission’s public comment period regarding the traditional marriage resolution could easily have degenerated into pandemonium in other circumstances. But the screaming match never happened. The chanting protest never materialized. No deputies had to be called to separate anyone from anyone else.
Yes, there were reported incidents of one individual or another baiting someone in the hallway, but overwhelmingly, the evening was marked by a tone of calm and respect, if not for the other party’s views, then at least for the process.
I attribute that to several factors, not the least of which was the calming hand of Chairman Greg Matherly. Commissioner Joe Wise began the evening with this statement. “I’d like to acknowledge the considerable effort you, Chairman Matherly, have put forth over the last month to make this meeting possible. Many people here who were here last month underestimate the considerable amount of time, effort and energy that was required to bring us here tonight. I for one, on behalf of everyone, regardless of what their opinion is, would like to thank you for your sacrifice and I want to applaud and acknowledge that.”
Wise was right and everyone in attendance knew it. Not only had audiovisual equipment been installed in three other courtrooms to allow for overflow attendance, but the meeting also had logistical challenges unlike any other. The fire marshal had stated that at least 10 firefighters had to be on hand in case of emergency. Matherly coordinated with Jonesborough firefighters and county volunteer firefighters to meet that requirement. Security had to be provided not only in the courtrooms, but in the hallways and in the parking lots. Everyone knew that something out of the ordinary was happening, and there was a sense of gratitude that someone had gone out of their way to make it all work.
Matherly made it work during the meeting as well. He has a knack for ending potential disputes quickly without having either party feel they’re being singled out. I suspect that’s partly from his law enforcement training and partly from his own personality. Matherly paid sharp attention to what was being said, and on the few occasions when a citizen began down a path that was leading to inflammatory rhetoric, he was able to steer them back to point.
A fair amount of credit must also be given to the commissioners who felt most strongly about the issue. Dignity and decorum were never abandoned. It would have been easy for commissioners on either side to play to their supporters in the crowd. That never happened.
Mostly, though, credit goes to the citizens of Washington County. I said in this space recently the commission should never have heard the resolution in question. I still firmly believe that. But once they had committed to doing so, the way in which virtually everyone in the room involved handled their business was admirable.
I left a little after 1 a.m. with my spirit buoyed by the poignant arguments made by both sides, by the restraint and discipline shown by almost everyone involved, and by the faith shown by both sides in the process of democracy in the American republic. I wish you could have been there.