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County commission cancels meeting as crowd gathers

Before the monthly Washington County Commissioners meeting was even scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. on Monday night inside of the George P. Jaynes Justice Center, it was already adjourned.
An overflowing crowd, estimated to be about 150-200 people in the foyer outside of courtroom 7 — many draped in red to show support against Resolution 16-01-01— forced Commission Chairman Greg Matherly to call on the opinion of Washington County Attorney Tom Seeley III before the meeting got too far into its agenda.
Seeley advised the commission that he felt like they could be in violation of the Open Meetings Act if they were to continue the meeting with that many people unable to hear its contents.
“I think that we would be at risk of violating the Open Meetings Act if we can’t take reasonable steps to enable these people that are out in the hallway to hear this matter; that is their right as this is a public meeting,” Seeley told the commission.
The big turnout was due to Resolution 16-01-01, “which was made to support the historical institution and legal contract solemnizing the relationship of one man and one woman as the only legal recognizable legal contract in Tennessee.”
Just last week, Carter County voted on a similar resolution that passed 20-0, while on the same night that Washington County was set to vote, Hawkins County passed a resolution 10-3.
But, the Washington County Commission was unable to continue its meeting, which made a few of the commissioners unhappy.
“I understand that everyone is here for one or two items, but how can we derail all of our business for one issue. I’m not sure if that is wise from the county’s point of view,” said Todd Hensley, who was one of the 10 commissioners that voted not to defer the entire meeting.
The commission voted 13-10 to defer the entire meeting until a later date.
Now, the group must find a big enough space to host a future meeting. One possibility is the Millennium Center in Johnson City. Washington County Commissioner David Tomita said during the meeting that he spoke with a a fellow Johnson City commissioner, a seat he also holds, about the possibility of holding the meeting there.
The meeting was adjourned before a date or location was set.
The public must be made aware of the date, time and place of the meeting with at least seven days notice.
Washington County Commissioner Tom Krieger said the turnout proved plenty of people were interested in the resolution. He also said that he received more emails, letters and phone calls on the subject than he had since his term started 15 months ago.
“So many people wanted to have something to say and I personally received dozens and dozens of emails and phone calls and they were pretty much evenly divided on the issue,” he said. “ So I just pray about it every morning. It’s a very divisive issue.”
Commissioner Joe Wise, who was afraid that the hearing of the resolution could become a sideshow to the entire meeting, wasn’t surprised at the turnout for the public meeting, and he said he felt like the committee took the needed precautions by postponing the meeting.
“I supported the move to defer, because I do think, obviously, we have a lobby full of people. There are probably as many people outside of the room as in it,” Wise said. “We need to respect the fact that the public has the right to come to a public meeting, I put a serious degree of importance on the county attorney’s council that we need to be mindful of staying in compliance with open meeting rules.
“So the fact that he is making the recommendation is something that I don’t take lightly. I don’t like that we have deferred the whole meeting, but I do like the fact that we are not having a special called meeting for one interest.”
But in pushing back the meeting, the Commission also pushed back the voting on other important issues.
Washington County Highway Superintendent John B. Deakins Jr. was at the meeting hoping to get a letter of support from the commissioners on Tennessee House Bill  2142.
The bill, which appropriates $100 million from excess state tax revenues collected over fiscal year 2014-2015 to the various counties to be used for county transportation projects, would allot Washington County $1.2 million from that fund.
“With the support of the commission, when we lobby for the money, it would have just been better,” Deakins Jr. said. “It hasn’t been through committee yet; we just got the information, basically today.”
The Washington County Highway Department gets $52,000 a year from the state for a Bridge Grant program and the average bridge costs around $200,000 to be replaced.
That was just one of the things that Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge was disappointed didn’t get handled during the regular scheduled meeting.
“It needs to be addressed with the general assembly this week,” Eldridge said about House Bill 2142. “He (Deakins Jr.) and the other highway officials of the state of Tennessee are going to be in Nashville Wednesday and Thursday of this week, so it was important to be able to address that.
“We had 600-pages of business to take care of and I don’t know what the motivation was to delay taking care of this business.”
Another item that was pushed back was voting on an allotment of $600,000 to pay for an architect for the new Boones Creek school.
“It’s a little disappointing that we couldn’t move other projects forward, especially from the Health, Education and Welfare committee,” Commissioner Katie Baker said.
“We had the beginnings of a Boones Creek K-8 on the agenda and we were really looking forward to discussing that. We had (county) employee compensation and benefits and an employee’s assistance program on the agenda. So I am disappointed that we tabled the entire agenda.”
Also pushed to a later date were five pages of the commission’s agenda, including a report from the audit and ethics committee, and three TIF projects, in which one developer drove in from Knoxville to be at the meeting.
Another item on the agenda to be heard by the commission was the Reapportionment/Redistricting Plan that would be presented to them for the third time.