Commission delays vote on new economic development board

Published 9:40 am Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Star Photo/Abby Morris-Frye   Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey defended his plan to create a new economic development board for the county during Monday's meeting of the Carter County Commission.

Star Photo/Abby Morris-Frye Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey defended his plan to create a new economic development board for the county during Monday’s meeting of the Carter County Commission.

A proposal to create a new county economic development board was postponed during the Carter County Commission’s meeting on Monday morning, as Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey said the group has already cut ties with its previous economic development branch – Carter County Tomorrow.
At the start of the Commission’s meeting, Commissioner Ray Lyons stood and made a motion that the resolution to create the Carter County Economic and Community Development Board be removed from the day’s agenda and any discussion regarding contested funding for Carter County Tomorrow and tourism also be delayed until the group’s January meeting. The motion to postpone a decision on the proposal, as well as discussion, passed by a vote of 21-2
During discussion on Lyons’ motion, Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey defended the proposal, on which he had asked County Attorney Josh Hardin to draft the resolution.
While some questioned the proposed creation of a new economic development board while the county is still involved in a lawsuit with Carter County Tomorrow, Humphrey said the Commission had already voted to do away with CCT.
Humphrey pointed to a motion made by Commissioner Robert Gobble during the governing body’s August meeting when the Commission approved the budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year.
During that meeting, Gobble made a motion that the Commission “do away with” funding for Carter County Tomorrow until the group could “come up with another program” for economic development.
When clarifying that motion, Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey, who serves as chairman of the Commission, asked Gobble if he meant to place the $40,000 for CCT, as well as the $90,000 for tourism through the Chamber of Commerce, in reserve. After a brief moment, Gobble replied that he did mean both funds. The motion ultimately passed by a margin of 14-8.
On Monday, Humphrey said when Gobble’s motion passed in August, it effectively ended Carter County’s participation in Carter County Tomorrow.
“You did away with it at that time and now you are looking for alternatives,” Humphrey said. “No committee chairman took up the task so the Mayor and his staff have taken it up. The reason the Mayor took this on is because those monies were to be held until such time as an alternative could be found. Time is of the essence. We have to get the ball rolling.”
Commissioner Al Meehan took issue with Humphrey’s assertion regarding the August meeting. During that meeting, Meehan objected to consideration of Gobble’s motion, saying that participation in Carter County Tomorrow was not on the meeting agenda and pointed out the motion was made during a special called meeting of the governing body. Under state law, when a special called meeting is held, the agenda must be advertised in advance and only those items on the agenda can be discussed or voted on.
During the August meeting, Humphrey assured Meehan that only the funding was being voted on and since the meeting had been called to approve the budget, debating and voting on funding was within the legal bounds of the meeting.
“That only reinforces my point that this was not in order and was illegal,” Meehan said on Monday after Humphrey said the group had voted in August to do away with Carter County Tomorrow. “After hearing your explanation, I believe there was more behind it.”
Even though Lyons’ removed the resolution and postponed any discussion of the withheld funds from the agenda, several commissioners insisted on discussing the tourism portion of the withheld funds, which would have gone to the Elizabethton-Carter County Chamber of Commerce. During the public comments portion of the meeting, Chamber Director Tonya Stevens made a plea for the tourism money to be restored to the Chamber. “Since our funding has been withheld, we have had to put some of our projects on hold,” she told the group. “Yes, we are partnered with Carter County Tomorrow, but if there were no Carter County Tomorrow there would still be a Chamber of Commerce. Our roots go back to 1890 and we have been doing tourism ever since.”
Humphrey said funding for tourism was being withheld because the private act the county set up, through the state for the tourism funds, requires a contract be executed between the county and whoever is selected to handle tourism promotion. No such contract had been approved, Humphrey said, so funds would be withheld until a contract was drawn up and signed.
Withholding the funds would provide the Commission the opportunity to evaluate other tourism promotion options other than just the Chamber of Commerce, Humphrey said, referencing his proposal to create a Carter County Economic and Community Development Board.
Commissioner Buford Peters made a motion to have the county attorney draft a temporary 90-day contract for tourism promotion and restore funding to the Chamber of Commerce. Humphrey told Peters his motion was out of order and would not be allowed because the group had voted earlier in the meeting to postpone discussion on the contested funding.
“You can’t take away people’s First Amendment rights to discuss things,” Peters said.
Humphrey allowed discussion to continue and Peters’ motion to be debated by the group. After a lengthy debate, Peters ultimately withdrew his motion upon advice from Hardin.
During the debate on tourism funding, Humphrey once again found himself defending the proposal he put forth, as well as his leadership as chairman of the Commission. Some commissioners complained that Humphrey allowed some members of the group to speak while refusing to allow others to voice their opinions.
“You are the chair and it is your responsibility to facilitate the business of the meeting and we are trying to accomplish something and all I am getting from you is stonewalling,” Meehan said.
Commissioner L. C. Tester also voiced concern with some commissioners not being allowed to speak and also with Humphrey offering his opinion on matters from the chairman’s position.
“It is not your job to hinder this commission,” Tester said, adding commissioners should be allowed to bring up matters for discussion in their effort to represent their constituents.
As Humphrey responded to criticism from the Commission floor, he voiced a complaint concerning an editorial that appeared in the Sunday edition of the Elizabethton Star regarding his proposal to create a new economic development board. The editorial said Humphrey’s plan showed a lack of community focus and appeared to be a power play.
“At no point in time is the Mayor trying to become a little dictator,” Humphrey said. “At no point in time is the Mayor trying to make a power play.”

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