Sullivan County Commission ‘tables’ resolution aimed at weapons signs at courthouse

J. H. Osborne • Aug 20, 2013 at 5:49 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Most Sullivan County commissioners indicated in a resounding vote Monday that they don’t want “no weapons permitted” signs removed from the doors of the historic Sullivan County Courthouse.

The commission voted 22-1 to “table” consideration of a resolution some said seemed aimed at getting those signs removed.

Tabling ends debate of an issue, and differs from “deferring” a vote by removing a resolution from automatically being placed on next month’s agenda.

For the proposal to come back for future discussion, it would have to be introduced anew.

A resolution introduced a few months ago asked the commission to declare itself the authority over the historic Sullivan County Courthouse.

By last month, Commissioner Baxter Hood had become lead sponsor.

Earlier this month at a committee meeting, Commissioner Kit McGlothlin asked Hood exactly what a “yes” vote on the resolution indicated someone would be supporting.

Hood said a “yes” vote would mean “take those signs off the door” and also “this is no longer a courthouse.”

On Monday morning, however, when Commissioner Michael Surgenor asked Hood if the intent of the resolution was to allow people to bring guns to the courthouse, Hood said “no.”

Surgenor asked, then, what was the purpose of the resolution.

Hood said he wasn’t the person to answer that question.

“You’re the sponsor,” Surgenor said.

Hood then said the resolution was meant to address two concerns: maintenance and cleanup of the building, and the signs banning weapons.

“I am certainly a supporter of Second Amendment rights,” Hood said. “I am for guns.”

Hood said he doesn’t think any citizen should be denied entry to the building because they have a gun.

In other business, Commissioner Eddie Williams deferred action on a resolution to prohibit convicted felons from being employed in any capacity by county government.

Williams submitted a replacement resolution that seems to soften the language used in his original proposal.

Williams also introduced a resolution Monday — on first reading — seeking County Commission approval for the sale of the Cedar Grove School property to Freedom Fellowship Church.

Williams said he would leave the proposal on first reading unless commissioners reached a consensus to waive commission rules and vote on it — a move that would have required a two- thirds majority (or 16 commissioner) for passage. No one called for such a waiver.

Two different churches have expressed interest in the property.

The commission’s Building Committee — of which Williams is chairman — voted in late June to offer the school for sale through a sealed bid process, with a minimum bid of $50,000.

Advertisement of the bid process, as well as specifications distributed to participants, explained that no deal would be final until approved by the County Commission.

Bids were opened in the county’s purchasing office last week.

Only two bids were received, according to public record: Freedom Fellowship Church’s bid of $59,855; and Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church’s bid of $1 — which was accompanied by a letter asking county commissioners to give special consideration and to waive the county’s advertised minimum bid of $50,000.

In the letter, Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church contact James C. Lyons said that leadership from the church first approached county officials two years ago to present the church’s vision for converting the property into a community center.

“We are asking you to waive the minimum bid due to the cost of starting such a venture along with the fact that the community center would be an investment in the community itself,” Lyons wrote.

Lyons indicated the community center would be funded through pooled resources from several churches in the community, as well as perhaps some private and/or governmental groups.

Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church is next door to the Cedar Grove School property.

Hobbie McCreary spoke to the commission on Monday on behalf of Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church.

McCreary said members of the congregation had not been contacted by anyone from the county and would not have known the issue was coming for a possible vote Monday if they hadn’t seen it in the Times-News.

McCreary said the church has been next door to the school since 1949 and has always done all it could to help the county school system and the students who have gone there — from allowing parking at the church to letting the school hold classes in the church.

McCreary said the congregation reached out to county officials more than two years ago, when it first become clear the county school system was going to cease using the property.

McCreary noted that it has been common for the county to lease or transfer former school properties to churches or other organizations for token amounts, so that they may be used by the communities around them.

McCreary also raised numerous issues regarding just what kind of facility Freedom Fellowship plans to open, and the appropriateness of such being located at the site — questions he said he is sure nearby residents will want answered.

Freedom Fellowship is located on West Sullivan Street in downtown Kingsport.

In June, Freedom Fellowship Pastor Roy Lane told the Building Committee the church aims to convert Cedar Grove School into housing for at-risk teens and homeless children.

Lane spoke to the committee on behalf of “Save The World — One Child At A Time,” a privately funded non-profit organization “dedicated to transforming the lives of these children by striving to offer opportunities that would enable them to become successfully empowered contributing leaders of society.”

That description is from a letter sent to County Mayor Steve Godsey earlier in June, in which the group said it is interested in either buying, leasing or receiving as a donation the school property.

“We want to get kids off the street and give them hope,” said Mark Sloan, another representative of the new organization. “We’ve got the resources to help these kids. We just need a place to do it.”

Sloan indicated to the committee then that the group would be willing to pay $50,000 for the property.

Sloan said ultimately the group could serve 200 or 300 children, with a religious-based program, starting out with 30 at Cedar Grove.

Lane said the group aims to break the welfare cycle and “get them to work.”

Lane said the group had great success with the program, serving children in St. Mary’s, Jamaica.

Some members of “Save the World — One Child At A Time” seemed to think Freedom Fellowship’s bid had already sealed the deal for the organization to take over the Cedar Grove School.

The Times-News received an invitation Monday to attend an event Wednesday to mark the pending opening of the program at the property. Even after a reporter described the commission’s lack of action on the issue, former Judge Steve Jones said the event’s scheduling had not changed and he had been told the bidding process is over.

A post on a Facebook profile titled “Save The World — One Child At A Time,” dated Sunday, read: “I think the one’s of you who have supported us on this journey deserve to know the great new! Our Foundation Saving The World One Child At A time has acquired Cedar Grove Elementary school as of Friday! We are so excited to get busy helping our youth in Upper East Tennessee, and parts of Southwest Virginia! The name of the home will be named ” Children’s House of Hope! Official announcement next Friday! If you would like to help us do cleanup this week let us know. Thanks to our Co-Founder Pastor Roy Lane, and Mayor Godsey for keeping the faith! Now let’s get busy about God’s business of walking the walk, and talking the talk! Thanks and praise to God as His intervention made this come together! Hope many will get involved as we save the world one child at a time!”

In actuality, the commission isn’t likely to even consider a vote on the issue for another month — and even if it approves the sale to Freedom Fellowship, more time would pass before the deal closed and a deed transfer occurs.

Some county commissioners said they were not aware of the competing proposals for use of the Cedar Grove School property from the two churches — and some asked if the commission is in any way required to consider only the highest bid.

Godsey at first said the commission must accept the higher bid, and to reopen the bid process would be illegal — but he quickly shifted gears and said state law actually allows the commission to start the whole process over by simply rejecting all bids received this time.

“This commission can reject any bid,” Godsey said.

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