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Marriage resolution turnout too large; venue could move to Millennium Centre

Gary B. Gray • Updated Jan 25, 2016 at 9:50 PM

The Washington County Commission canceled its entire meeting Monday, when overcrowding for a scheduled vote on a resolution supporting one-man one-woman marriage created concerns the county could be violating Tennessee Open Meetings Act. 

Following orders from a barking sheriff’s deputy for those still trying to find a seat inside the packed 200-seat George Jaynes Justice Center courtroom to clear the aisle and move outside, Senior Attorney Tom Seeley advised commissioners they should heed the wants of the estimated 150 to 200 left in the foyer.

“This is a public meeting, and anyone wishing to attend should at least be able to listen to the proceedings,” Seeley said. “Otherwise, we may be violating the state’s public records law. If people are physically left out of a meeting, the county must supply the means with which they can hear.”

Commissioner David Tomita, also a Johnson City commissioner, said he had spoken with his city colleagues who agreed to try to find an opening at the Millennium Centre. That suggestion carried in a 13-10 vote.

Public notice must be given for that special called meeting, regardless of location.

Commissioner Todd Hensley expressed doubts about the deferral prior to the vote asking, “How can we derail all our business for one issue?”

Frank Gibson, Tennessee Press Association public policy director, said Seeley made the right move. He also said a judge recently ruled in the Greeneville and Greene County, US Nitrogen case that deliberations at public meetings covered by the Open Meetings Act must be audible in order to comply with the law. 

“I applaud the county attorney’s advice about canceling the meeting,” Gibson said. 

Johnny Deakins, the county’s Highway Department superintendent, was a bit ruffled at the outcome.

“There is proposed (state) legislation in which $100 million would be taken from state surplus reserves and transferred to counties, and that would mean more than $1.2 million in one-time money for Washington County,” Deakins said.

“I had hoped to get the Chairman (Greg Matherly) to sign a letter of support for the bill upon commission approval. We can use it for bridge replacement and repair. Anytime you’ve got the County Commission backing the effort, it’s better than doing it alone.”

Though he came hoping to voice his opposition to the marriage resolution, Jeff Dupre said there were bigger issues that needed to be considered Monday. He also faulted county officials for their lack of preparation.

“I think they could have foreseen this issue (overcrowding),” Dupre said. “They could have had auxiliary resources set up. We’re allowing a minor issue (marriage resolution) that has nothing to do with the county or state to interfere with important business, such as Mr. Deakins.”

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court held in a 5-4 decision that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

On Jan. 7, Commissioner Forrest Boreing introduced a resolution to the county’s Public Safety Committee asking that it support the state’s definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. The vote to send the resolution to the full commission was unanimous.

Article XI, Section 18 of the Tennessee Constitution spells out that any other judicial interpretation purporting to define marriage in any other terms “shall be void and unenforceable in Tennessee.”

If approved, the resolution will be sent to state legislators asking that they do everything within their power to nullify any federal mandate to adhere to federal same-sex marriage laws. But those attempts may prove ineffective. Last week, a bill introduced in the General Assembly seeking to cut off the Supreme Court ruling was defeated in committee by a vote of 4-1. Tennessee legislators have said the bill likely will remain lifeless due the potential loss of $8.5 billion in federal funding to the state turning its back on the ruling. 

Still, Republican state Reps. Matthew Hill and Micah Van Huss have praised the resolution and said they would support action that keeps traditional marriage in place and allows state, county and city workers to opt out of performing same-sex marriages or issuing licenses on religious grounds.

Commissioners also will have to wait on a vote to approve the county’s newly drawn 15-district map. The new districts will be in effect for the 2018 county general election, when the number of county commissioners will be reduced from 25 to 15.

County Mayor Dan Eldridge’s recommended choices to serve on the Budget Committee also have been put on ice. The current five-member committee includes Eldridge, Joe Grandy, Rick Storey, Todd Hensley and Wise. The resolution that would have been considered Monday retains Grandy, Storey and Hensley, and adds Dr. Paul Stanton and Mark Larkey.

Email Gary Gray at [email protected]. Like Gary B. Gray on Facebook at www.facebook.com/garybgrayjcp. Follow him on Twitter @ggrayjcpress.

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