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John Thompson

Elizabethton Bureau Chief
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Tempers flare again at Carter meeting

August 8th, 2011 11:32 pm by John Thompson

ELIZABETHTON — The chairman of the Carter County Highway Committee called in a lieutenant from the sheriff’s department to remove a citizen from Monday morning’s meeting after order broke down early in the session.
Chairman Ernest “Gebe” Ritchie called the sheriff’s department to remove Jeff Hughis, who had continued to ask questions about the committee’s recommendation to support the state installation of a flashing caution light on a curve on the southbound lane of U.S. Highway 19E near the Simerly Creek intersection.
The problems began when committee member John Lewis said the state would erect a warning sign with flashing lights if the county agreed to pay the electric bills.
Following the committee’s approval of Lewis’ motion to encourage the warning sign’s installation, Hughis spoke from the gallery several times, asking committee members if they had any written contract with the state and if the state would agree to repair any damage to the highway from the installation of the electric wiring for the warning sign.
At the beginning of the session, Ritchie said he was going to conduct an orderly meeting. There was a place on the agenda for public comment but he said he would not tolerate interruptions and criticism from the audience during the proceedings.
In past meetings, the committee had received loud criticism from citizens attending the meetings. The citizens complained about the lengthy time it has taken to address highway and drainage problems and the committee’s lack of action except passing citizen concerns to other committees.
As Hughis continued to ask questions about the warning sign, Ritchie continued to answer directly to him and a conversation developed. When Hughis mentioned he hoped the state sign would not end up like the patchwork job on Siam Road, Ritchie said Hughis was shifting subjects. He then went on to say the Highway Department had nothing to do with the condition of Siam Road, and the Watauga River Regional Water Authority was responsible.
As Hughis continued to talk, Ritchie told him to stop. A few minutes later, Ritchie left the chair and went to call the sheriff’s department. Several minutes later Lt. Penny Cornett arrived and told Hughis to come with her.
When Hughis asked why he was being removed, Ritchie said it was because he had interrupted the meeting three times.
Hughis protested that his constitutional rights were being violated. “What you are doing is wrong, I have have a right to be here,” Hughis said.
Ritchie said “We can’t have a professional meeting with someone trying to argue all of the time.”
After several minutes, Hughis was allowed to return to the meeting, but he made no more comments during the proceedings.
During the exchange between Ritchie and Hughis, committee member Charlie VonCannon appeared to be in physical distress. Later in the meeting he appeared to recover and was an active participant. He said after the meeting that he has heart problems.
Ritchie also hinted at his own health problems.
“I am trying to be calm and easygoing. I just took a blood pressure pill and I am trying to get through this meeting,” Ritchie said.

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