ROGERSVILLE — A lengthy and often contentious debate regarding how many votes are required to change rules or policies, and concerns regarding the fact that the board’s various standing committees have not met for almost two months because of dissension over who should or could make such appointments, dominated much of the Nov. 25, 2019 meeting of the Hawkins Co. Commission.
At the outset of the meeting, Commissioner Mark Dewitte asked to be recognized for a “parliamentary inquiry” regarding how many commissioners’ votes are required to constitute a “majority”, a move that plunged the board head-first into a lengthy back-and-forth exchange that ended with 14 members voting to table the matter indefinitely.
Dewitte said that, the Rules of Order for the commission, adopted in 1982, Article 7, on page 6, “states that any rules of order herein may be suspended or amended by the affirmative vote of 21 members”.
A representative of CTAS, the University of Tennessee-based County Technical Assistance Service, advised the board earlier that requiring a 100 percent vote was “unreasonable and could be contested in Chancery Court”, Dewitte pointed out.
In addition, he said, that CTAS representative also distributed, at the time, a document that gave guidelines for setting local rules of order.
One of those recommendations, Dewitte said, is to “establish a method to amend local rules,” which is “usually by requiring a two-thirds (majority) vote to amend.
Dewitte then made a motion to amend Article 7 of the 1982 rules to state that any rule of order may be suspended or amended by an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the members, rather than the 21-member requirement.
That motion was seconded by Commissioner John Metz.
Chairman Rick Brewer recognized the motion made, and during the discussion phase, County Attorney James Phillips said he had also spoken with a representative of CTAS who confirmed that the rules as passed by a previous commission 37 years ago are not binding on the current board.
Therefore, he said, Dewitte’s proposed amendment could be passed by a simple majority vote.
Commissioner Dawson Fields asked for clarification.
Dewitte responded that rules of order are procedures, and because the long-standing “21-member” affirmative vote to change a rule, as set forth in the 1982 guidelines, would not stand up if challenged in court, and reiterated the recommendation from CTAS that that number be set at a two-thirds majority in order to make any amendments.
“Is there a reason that you brought this up now, out of order, rather than putting it in a formal resolution?” Commissioner Hannah Speaks asked.
Dewitte said he has been working to incorporate needed changes “into what we do” since he was first elected to the board.
“So it’s not just been brought up just now, although I did voice this just now,” he said.
Dewitte added that the 1982 rules include a number of requirements that are outdated, such as commissioners having to “stand up to get attention”.
“This one, I felt, was most important because what we’re doing now is requiring 21 (votes). If we do that and somebody objects, we may find ourselves in court,” he said.
“Are we voting on this tonight?” Commissioner Michael Herrell wanted to know.
“Yes,” Dewitte replied.
“I want to make a motion to table until next month so that we can get more information on it, cause, I mean, we’re getting blindsided by this,” Herrell said.
“Have you read the 1982 rules?” Dewitte asked?
Herrell said that he has, but stood by his motion to table the matter until the board’s December meeting.
“Putting it off month after month after month is not going to do us any good,” Dewitte replied.
In the ensuing voice vote, 14 commissioners voted “yes” to table the matter, while seven — Commissioners Dewitte, Fields, Metz, Nancy Barker, Bob Edens, Keith Gibson, and Tom Kern — voted “no”.
“If the rules need to be changed, why don’t we go through and change them all at one time?” Commissioner Donnie Talley asked.
“I tried to do that, Commissioner Talley,” Dewitte responded, and added that such duties probably should be a function of the Personnel Committee, “which we don’t have at this point, so its kinda hard to do that”.
On that note, Commissioners went directly into consideration of pre-filed resolutions, the first of which, a resolution to amend the rules of order and return the responsibility of appointing members of County Commission committees to the Chairman was made by Commissioner Charles Thacker.
The motion, which received a “second” from Commissioner Speaks, kicked off a lengthy and confrontational discussion of its own.
“Until September, 2018, the County Mayor had always presided as Chairman of the Commission,” Thacker’s resolution states. “The Rules of Order for the Board of Commissioners state that the chairman would appoint standing committees made up of county commissioners as members.”
But, Resolution #2018-09-01, which passed on Sept. 24, 2018, changed that scenario so that a member of the Commission would serve as chairman instead of County Mayor Jim Lee.
“Said resolution was amended ‘to have the County Mayor to select the committees for the county commission’,” the new resolution continues.
According to Thacker’s resolution, “it is the desire of some commissioners to put the responsibility of the committee appointments back to the Chairman of the Commission,” which, as it stands now, would be Commissioner Rick Brewer.
Immediately, the proposal drew questions based on the earlier discussion regarding how many votes constitutes a legal majority.
“So, based on what Mr. Dewitte read, this has to go by all 21 votes?” Commissioner Bob Edens asked.
Attorney Phillips said that, according to Tennessee law, a simple majority vote is all that is required for passage and reiterated that the board is not bound by the previously discussed 1982 rules.
“But we haven’t changed it so its still 21,” Dewitte said.
Phillips disagreed, saying that state law, not locally adopted rules, is the overriding factor in such matters.
In his opinion, Commissioner Fields said, “something should be put in place, a board or something, so that one person does not pick the committees. We could put it through the Personnel Committee or any committee we wanted to, so that seven people on a committee, not just one person, picks who’s going to be on what board”.
Currently, the Commission has 15 standing committees — Audit, Budget, Environmental, Parks, Public Safety, Audit, Delinquent Tax/Resale of Land, Ethics, Personnel, Road, Beer, Education, Industrial, Public Buildings, and Solid Waste.
“What CTAS recommends is two-thirds (majority vote),” Metz commented. “Roberts Rules of Order recommends two-thirds to change parliamentary rules. The reason CTAS recommends two-thirds is to somewhat go along with the Sunshine Laws, so obviously there is a moral expectation according to rule of law that avoids complete chaos, because if we can just change what we want to change to suit our particular preference at the moment and it just takes a simple majority, then Katy bar the door because, baby, I’ve got a lot of things that are gonna come.”
Metz said that the Sunshine Law’s intent is for the public’s business to be done in open, public forum, and said that he has knowledge that some commissioners are “meeting on weekends and evenings and, ‘quote unquote’, electing members of their group to contact commissioners for the purpose of swing votes”.
“I actually received a phone call and completed affidavit of a meeting that commissioners had on August 21 and that commissioner told me, ‘I guess I was elected to contact you,’ and it was concerning the wheel tax,” Metz said. “It’s also evident that when we have committee meetings and nobody talks during the whole thing but they meet out in the parking lot and talk, and all of a sudden next month, things congregate and come together in an absolutely ridiculous fashion. Backroom, manipulative, mafia-style politics is utterly repulsive and shameful.”
Metz verbally chastised his fellow board members for not voting to revise their rules to require a two-thirds majority vote to revise rules.
“Now you’re saying just a simple majority,” he said. “So don’t say a word to me when I come back next month with several amendments if it just takes a simple majority. If its going to be hijacked, then I can play a game, too.”
Metz blasted what he called “backroom” politics.
“When a commissioner calls me and says, ‘we met this weekend and I guess they elected me to call you and talk to you,’ that’s what’s going on, folks. All this backroom trash going on. Its consistent, its going on all the time, and some of you are ‘in the clique’ or ‘in the know’. I never get a phone call, and that’s OK. I’m alright with that.”
Metz said that he would not divulge, at that time, who the commissioner was who called him regarding the “unofficial” meeting he had described earlier, “but I had an affidavit printed and I am prepared to turn it over to Chancery Court because this has got to stop. It is beyond repulsive and ridiculous”.
Dewitte responded that he, too, had received text messages from when the board was attempting to put a salary plan into place.
“There were certain people offering me certain things for votes,” Dewitte said. “Along with Mr. Metz, I have written proof of that and I’m not going to divulge who it is but it is here, in my hands, and that’s all I have to say.”
“We just got snookered again,” Metz lamented.
Commissioner Jeff Barrett asked if the clerk could look back and see how the vote went about a year ago when the board voted to give authority for making the Committee appointments to Mayor Lee.
Clerk Nancy Davis said that she would have to check the records in her office.
Metz, however, responded, “it was 15 affirmative”.
“On the remarks that have been made, I hate to be sitting here getting threatened by commissioners,” Herrell said. “If you want to file it, file, because we all probably have some things we could file. There’s certain ones I have talked to that’s been about the same way, so if we’re going to file, just quit coming to the meetings threatening and file.”
Commissioner Fields asked attorney Phillips if some type of temporary policy could be adopted, or either leave the prior committee assignments in place so that committees could function until action could be taken to make new assignments.
“Our county needs to be running,” Fields said. “We need these committees.”
“The problem was, normally that would be the case anyway, but you all passed, I think at the September meeting, an amendment to a resolution that said the old committee members could serve until the October meeting, so you knocked that out when you did that, and, of course, at the October meeting, the (new) committee members didn’t pass.”
Phillips said the board, at that time, could have passed a resolution allowing the then-current committee members to serve until such time that a new slate of members was chosen.
“We’ve got to get around this somehow,” Fields continued. “We’ve got to operate.”
Chairman Rick Brewer attempted to comment, and was quickly called out by several commissioners.
“We don’t need to be arguing anything,” Dewitte said.
“I’m not arguing anything, okay, let me just say what I’ve got to say,” Brewer replied. “If I get out of order, someone can call me out of order. We have got to do something to bring unity back to this Commission.”
Brewer said he has suggested before that all 21 commissioners should vote on committee assignments.
“What would be fairer than that?” he asked.”Take it district by district. You’ve got three people (commissioners) in each district. It might take some time but it would get it done.”
That way, he said, the committees would be chosen by the board as a whole, and not by the chairman or by the County Mayor.
“Somebody’s gonna have to appoint,” he said. “We’re gonna have to have committees.”
Commissioner Nancy Barker, who also serves as the director of the Rogersville/Hawkins Co. Chamber of Commerce, said that while the board sits and argues, “we’re hampering business in the community”.
“And that’s costing us tax revenue,” she pointed out. “We’ve already voted on this once, we agreed that the Mayor would make the appointments, and I guess because some people didn’t get their way, we’re doing the same thing all over again.”
Barker compared the actions of the board to spoiled children.
“It’s like a child who goes to dad and if he says no, they go to mom and ask her,” Barker said. “We have a business that, if this passes tonight, it will be January before they can get a (beer) license, and that’s ridiculous.”
Commissioner Housewright asked attorney Phillips to clarify his statement regarding what CTAS told him about the number of votes required for such matters.
“What they say is that because this (the aforementioned 21-vote majority required by the 1982 rules) was passed by a previous commission, not this one, if we want to change it, we can change it, and we operate by a majority of 11 unless state law says otherwise,” Phillips said. “That’s what CTAS told me.”
Tennessee law basically states that a simple majority of commissioners can meet, discuss and pass whatever is deemed necessary, Phillips said. Which, in the opinion of CTAS lawyers, makes it legal for succeeding commissions to change operating rules and procedures by a simple majority vote.
“You can keep those (old rules), but if you want to change them you can do that, by state law, because that’s what you operate under, unless state law says otherwise,” Phillips added.
Commissioner Sybil Vaughn Trent asked Phillips if the board could vote to overturn the previous vote and return to the “old committees” until such time that new members can be chosen.
“Yes, because if you don’t, we can’t function,” Phillips responded.
Confusion continued to reign for several minutes as further discussion bounced back and forth concerning how many votes constitutes a majority.
“I would think that if we have actually amended the 1982 rules and regulations twice under this commission, are we now saying we’re not going to operate under them? I think we have acknowledged that’s what we’re going by.”
Commissioner Talley, addressing Dewitte, said that Roberts Rules of Order require members to be recognized before speaking.
“And if we’re going to follow the rules, I think we need to show great respect for our chairman,” Talley said.
“Mr. Talley, you are singling me out among several who have done the same thing,” Dewitte responded.
“I’m just gonna make all of you mad in one fell swoop and say that if the mayor had stood up, and stepped up, and chaired this Commission, like he should be, we wouldn’t have been having these bickerings for a year now,” Commissioner Hannah Speaks said.
“Explain ‘should be’,” Mayor Jim Lee said to Speaks.
One commissioner said that Lee was out of order.
“This is getting out of hand,” Chairman Brewer remarked, to which Metz replied that, under Roberts Rules of Order, since Speaks had addressed the mayor individually, he had the right to respond.
Speaks, to Lee, said that “while on the campaign trail”, she didn’t recall Lee saying once that, if elected, he would not serve as chairman of the board.
County mayors have always presided as chairman, she added.
“Things are different now,” Lee replied. “They don’t run by your rules. You don’t make the rules.”
“Well, neither do you,” Speaks shot back.
Chairman Brewer then called for a vote on the proposed resolution that would amend the rules of order to make the Chairman responsible for appointing committees.
On a motion by Commissioners Thacker and Speaks, the resolution to allow the chairman of the commission to appoint members of committees failed by a margin of 10 “yes”, eight “no”, and three “abstain”.
Chairman Brewer then said that the Commission needs to have its Beer Board committee “in place tonight”.
Later in the meeting, on a motion by Commissioner Dewitte, the board was presented with and approved a slate of proposed internal committee members from Mayor Jim Lee who would serve on various committees until Sept. 30, 2020, including: Audit, Budget, Environmental, Parks, Public Safety, Audit, Delinquent Tax/Resale of Land, Ethics, Personnel, Road, Beer, Education, Industrial, Public Buildings, and Solid Waste. See accompanying list published elsewhere with this article.
Dewitte’s motion was seconded by Commissioner Barker and passed by a vote of 12 “yes”, seven “no” and two “abstain”.