Commission debates new fill in policy

Published 9:36 am Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A County Commission meeting turned personal Monday night during debate on a resolution that would establish an official procedure when commissioners must miss a meeting.

Some commissioners said the matter was brought up because of a difference of opinion.

The resolution was drafted after a the Rules and Bylaws committee approved having commissioners fill in for each other at committee meetings when someone had to be absent. Currently, the Commission already allows for such fill-ins under previous policy as well as past precedent. But the commission voted 16-8 to send the resolution back to committee following a lengthy debate.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

While some commissioners said they supported the spirit of the resolution in allowing commissioners to stand in for one another, others took issue with its wording.

One word, in particular, struck some as being inappropriate in the resolution – “desires.” Under the wording of the resolution “If any commissioner who will be absent from an assigned committee meeting desires to have their seat on said committee filled for that meeting, he or she may request a fellow commissioner from the same district to attend the meeting in their absence.”

The resolution also set a timetable for fill-ins, requiring at least 24 hours notice to be given if any substitution is to take place.

In the past, if someone was absent and another commissioner from the same district was in attendance, the committee chair has allowed the second commissioner to fill in for their absent colleague.

The resolution, as proposed, would leave the decision to fill or not fill the vacant seat up to the commissioner who would be absent. “If the procedure outlined herein is not followed, no commissioner shall be permitted to fill the vacant seat of an absent commissioner at any committee meeting,” the resolution said.

When the resolution was presented, Commissioner Al Meehan made a motion to send it back to the Rules and Bylaws committee for “reworking.” The motion was seconded by Commissioner Sonja Culler.

The past precedent of the Commission has been to allow commissioners to fill in for each other on committees “to insure citizens of that district have input in those important matters,” Meehan said, adding that it respects the rights of the citizens to be represented in their county government.

“I don’t think it is our prerogative to deny the citizens a voice or ear on the committee,” he added.

The policy set by the resolution also does not take into account emergencies such illness or a death in the family which do not always allow someone 24 hours notice, Meehan said.

Commissioner L.C. Tester also took issue with the time restriction, citing a recent case where he had to miss a meeting after an emergency arose just one hour before the meeting was scheduled to start.

“I contacted Mr. (Isaiah) Grindstaff to fill in for me; I didn’t tell him how to vote,” Tester said. “I think that’s the problem here is because someone voted the way someone else didn’t like.”

Commissioner Ray Lyons brought up a recent substitution during a budget committee meeting on May 28 when Commissioner Nancy Brown was absent, and part of the way through the meeting, Committee Chairwoman Sonja Culler allowed Commissioner Mike Hill to take Brown’s place after he arrived at the meeting.

“This is what I think,” Lyons said.  “Now I can’t prove it, but the chairwoman called a five minute recess that lasted 20 minutes and then for some ironic reason Mr. Hill shows up and takes Mrs. Brown’s seat,” Lyons said.

In response, Culler said when the committee was preparing to return from recess, she saw that Hill had arrived at the meeting and she asked him if he would like to take the empty seat to represent the second district.

Brown also spoke Monday night, and she admitted she has issues with Hill filling in for her and with the votes he cast during the meeting.

“As far as asking anyone to fill in for me, no I didn’t,” Brown said, adding she was absent due to health problems. “I can tell you I didn’t appreciate some of the votes and that’s why we’re here.”

After Brown’s comments, Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey stopped the discussion, saying it was leading nowhere.

When the issue came to a vote the Commission voted 16-8 to send the resolution back for additional work.

In other business, the Commission learned the Carter County Health Department has been selected to receive $450,000 in “special needs funding” from the Tennessee Department of Health to help expand the office and clinic space at the local health department. The state funding would require a commitment from the county to help obtain the remaining 48 percent of funding for the project.

The Commission also approved a contract between the Carter County Sheriff’s Department and the City of Watauga for the sheriff’s department to provide policing services for Watauga in exchange for the city of Watauga reimbursing the sheriff’s department with the money previously used to fund the Watauga Police Department.