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Kingsport approves controversial right-of-way measure

Matthew Lane • Nov 19, 2019 at 11:00 PM

KINGSPORT — Ballad Health protesters who have been encamped outside Holston Valley Medical Center for more than 200 days now have 10 days to remove their tents from the side of the road or face fines of up to $50 per day.

This possibility is the result of action taken by the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen during its regular meeting on Tuesday night.

City leaders two weeks ago approved on first reading an amendment to city code that would — for the most part — prohibit temporary or permanent structures placed on the public right of way. The measure required a second reading to become official, which took place Tuesday night with a 5 to 2 vote by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

The amendment will now go into effect in 10 days, and violators could face fines of $10 to $50 per day.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

City officials say the amendment is necessary since such structures have a detrimental effect on the aesthetics of the city, can cause damage to and hinder the maintenance of the right of way, and potentially endanger the safety of the public.

Opponents say the amendment infringes upon the First Amendment rights of the Ballad Health protesters who have been outside Holston Valley Medical Center for more than 200 days. Protesters have used a number of canopies and tarps for shelter, setting up on the right of way, in the grassy area between the sidewalk and West Ravine Road.

At the end of day, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted 5 to 2 to approve the amendment on second reading. Just like two weeks ago, Alderwoman Jennifer Adler and Alderman Darrell Duncan voted no on the measure.

PUBLIC COMMENTS

Though not as crowded as two weeks ago, City Hall was packed for Tuesday's meeting, with a majority of the people in attendance opposed to the ordinance change. A dozen people spoke out against the measure.

Dani Cook, who has been spearheading the protest since May, said Kingsport is targeting the First Amendment rights of the people protesting Ballad Health. Cook said the protesters' opinion is that the money they’ve spent on canopies and tarps is an exercise of their free speech.

“It's a physical representation of our speech. What you see as an aesthetic blemish is in fact beautiful, vibrant and a patchwork ... it's the dedication, commitment and resources of your community coming together,” Cook said. “We're making history one way or another. People and civil rights attorneys are watching.”

Earlier this year, protesters collected more than 28,000 signatures on a petition opposing the changes at Holston Valley Medical Center. Dennis McGuire said the BMA was slapping every one of those 28,000 people in the face with the passage of this amendment.

“As long as I have breath in me I will protest,” McGuire said.

Another woman spoke out against the measure, saying there’s a stalemate because one side doesn't want to sit down.

“How do we get to the table? How do we get to that point,” she asked.

THOUGHTS FROM THE BMA

Near the end of the meeting, nearly every member of the BMA weighed in on the issue, explaining their position and why they voted the way they did.

Adler led off by saying the passage of this amendment will not likely change the stalemate between the protesters and Ballad Health.

“I want to remind you both it's in your power to wake up tomorrow and do something different,” Adler said. She continued by asking the protesters to present a clear list of demands and a willingness to negotiate and compromise; and for Ballad to hire an independent, third party mediator to open lines of communication, and also have a willingness to negotiate and compromise.

“Are you willing to come to the table and show a good-faith effort to break your own stalemate?” Adler asked.

Alderwoman Betsy Cooper, who missed the last meeting due to a surgery, said she has truly listened to everyone about this issue and has heard both sides of the story.

“A lot of people are just as adamant about ending (the protest),” Cooper said. “I agree with the reason for protesting, but not the process happening right now.”

Alderman Tommy Olterman signed the petition opposing the changes at Holston Valley, and pointed out on Tuesday that no one from Ballad Health has told him what to do.

“When I get to the point of making a decision, Tommy Olterman makes it,” he said. “I’m with you folks, but I am not for going out and living in a tent.”

Alderman James Phillips said he is extremely sympathetic to the protesters’ cause and continued by saying no one in Kingsport wanted to see the changes take place at Holston Valley. However, Phillips reiterated a point he made two weeks ago about the protesters.

“You have created an environment where we can't help you even if there’s something we can do,” Phillips said. “We’ve tried to get (Ballad Health Executive Chairman, President and CEO Alan Levine) to come to a work session. His board would not let him come because of the threat of attack from the protesters.”

Duncan again gave his reason for voting against the amendment — that if passed there’s a high probability of a lawsuit the citizens of Kingsport would have to pay for.

“I agreed to the two sides coming together. There’s got to be some happy ground and communication somewhere,” he said.

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