Renovations underway at historic Sullivan County Courthouse

J. H. Osborne • Updated Sep 29, 2016 at 8:08 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Work has begun on an update to the historic Sullivan County Courthouse’s Commission Room, host to meetings of the 24-member Sullivan County Commission.

The room, on the building’s second floor, also is used by the public for some gatherings when it is not in use for governmental functions.

It originally was a courtroom. The county commission did not move in until the Sullivan County Justice Center offered new courtroom spaces in the 1980s.

Due to the work, commissioners will not hold a monthly meeting in October, County Mayor Richard Venable said last week.

The work is estimated to be completed, however, in time for the commission to meet the second Monday in November. That’s a week earlier than its normal third-Monday-of-the-month meeting date. The move is being made in part to divide the time more evenly between commission meetings (due to skipping October) and in part to distance the November meeting from the Thanksgiving holiday week.

For many years, the layout of the room ran west-east: a judge’s bench ran the length of the west wall, just steps from a door to the county mayor’s office. It’s on that bench, during commission meetings, that Venable (acting as elected chairman of the commission) sits, along with the county clerk and deputy clerk keeping minutes, the county attorney, and the county’s accounts and budgets director.

Back then, the individual desks for the Sullivan County Commission’s 24 members were arranged in rows (six desks across, four rows deep) facing the “judge’s” bench.

Behind them, on the east end of the room, were rows of seating for the public.

Large windows, which dominate the east and west walls and can flood the room with light, were completely covered by wall-to-wall draperies that hung to the plushly carpeted floor.

When Steve Godsey, a former state representative, was elected county mayor in 2006, one of the first things he did was redecorate the room and move the commissioners’ desks into a double-rowed semicircle — a feat accomplished by rotating the room’s layout to one running north-south. The judge’s bench was moved to the north wall. The arrangement of the commissioners’ desks fans from the north side of the room to the south wall — making entry and exit from the two rooms leading to the courthouse’s front hall difficult when the desks are occupied. The old, plush carpeting was replaced with a darker, flatter one. Draperies were banished, replaced by blinds hung within each window frame. The change opened up the west end of the room, near the mayor’s office door, and it was filled by a conference table. The number of seats for the public, on the east end of the room, was greatly reduced.

Venable, who defeated Godsey in the GOP primary to become the party’s successful nominee for county mayor in 2014, has discussed changing the room — as part of a larger makeover to update a 30-year-old sound and recording system which will include the installation of electronic voting — with the commission several times. 

Now, the project has begun, and by Wednesday afternoon workers already had the judge’s bench returned to the room’s west end. The windows on both ends of the room will receive new window treatments to better control light, possibly draperies (but not wall-covering as before) or shutters.


Commissioners’ desks, however, won’t return to their earlier schoolroom-like all-eyes-forward layout. Venable’s vision is to instead have half along the north wall, facing south, and the other half on the south wall, facing north. Commissioners will be facing each other, but with a simple swivel of their chairs they can look toward either Venable and others on the judge’s bench or back toward the audience. The rows of desks will be staggered, so that commissioners do not sit directly behind or in front of each other on either side of the center row.

The layout will provide a clearer, more direct line of sight for commissioners, Venable and the public to see each other.

It will also improve how quickly people can get in and out of the room, Venable has said, especially the two doors leading to the front of the courthouse.

A bigger reason for that layout is linked to one of several technological advances: a new sound and recording system; an electronic voting system with results posting live on screens on the walls; and an experiment with live-streaming meetings online.


The change in layout of the desks, as described by Venable, will better allow all commissioners — and the public — to see the wall-mounted screens on which votes will be projected, with fewer screens than would be required with the current layout of the room.

Venable said two screens, placed at slight angles in the corners of the west wall, above and to the sides of the judge’s bench, will likely be able to be seen by all commissioners and members of the public in the back of the room.

The new sound system is needed to help make sure the county can continue to record meetings digitally and to provide better hearing of discussions by commission members and the public.

The microphone and voting system being installed are by the same company that provides such equipment to the United Nations.

A reversion to the east-west layout also will return podiums used by public speakers to the west end “front” of the room, clearing up some line-of-sight issues with the current layout between public speakers and some members’ desks.

Commissioners’ desks and chairs, as well as all those used by Venable and other officials on the “judge’s desk,” will be the same they’ve been using for years. But the public will be getting new seating, hopefully more comfortable than the old auditorium-style seats that have been in use for decades. Those old auditorium-style seats will be offered for public sale, in lots, on www.govdeals.com, Purchasing Director Kris Davis confirmed to the Times-News Wednesday afternoon.

Venable said the total project is estimated to cost just under $60,000. The money to fund it will come from the maintenance budget for county buildings.

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