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Kingsport BMA tiring of disrespectful comments from public

Matthew Lane • Dec 9, 2019 at 12:25 PM

KINGSPORT — The Board of Mayor and Aldermen could be having a discussion in the near future about what’s being said at its meetings. Or more important, how things are being said.

The concern among some BMA members has to do with the public comment time during the board’s regular meetings. The BMA affords the public two 30-minute opportunities to comment — once near the beginning (about items on the agenda) and again at the end (on just about anything).

In the past, few people spoke during these opportunities, and when they did the issues ranged from annexation to the homeless to a public safety matter or to appreciation for something the city had done. Sometimes months would pass with no one speaking during the public comment periods.

However, in recent months, more and more people are speaking, taking up nearly all of the allotted time. The comments have been mostly about the changes at Holston Valley Medical Center and a recently passed city code amendment banning structures from the public right-of-way.

Most speakers were respectful, though passionate about the issues. A few were snarky and disruptive, and on two occasions Mayor Pat Shull threatened to clear the room due to outbursts.

TESTING THE LIMITS

Last week, the patience of BMA members was tested following public comments, which could result in changes to how future meetings are held.

“Public comments have gotten to be people coming up here and saying a lot of untrue things,” said Alderwoman Betsy Cooper during Tuesday’s meeting. “I dread the end of (the meetings) because I know what’s going to happen.”

The issue came to a head during Tuesday’s meeting when a member of the public insinuated wrongdoings by the city over a piece of property in Cherokee Village owned by former Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips and his son, current Alderman James Phillips.

As the public comment section of the meeting continued, Dennis Phillips entered the meeting room and spoke to the BMA.

“I’ve had about all I’m going to take of all this BS,” Phillips said. “It’s about time the city comes forward and stands up for itself. Something is wrong with a system where you let people stand up here and tell flat lies on citizens and there’s no repercussions.”

COMMENTS GETTING PERSONAL

According to City Attorney Mike Billingsley, state law does not require the BMA to have public comments during its meetings. Originally, public comments were allowed at the beginning the meetings, but were later moved to the end because the comments were taking up a lot of time, Billingsley explained.

In the early 2000s, the city added an “agenda-item-only” public comment section at the beginning of the meetings.

Cooper, who said the public comments have been getting “very personal,” said she does want to hear from citizens, but would like comments expressed more civilly.

THE MAYOR WEIGHS IN

When asked by the Times News if he had regrets about how he handled Phillips’ comments during Tuesday’s meeting, Shull said he did not.

“What I regret was probably not calling down the lady, who was essentially giving her own version of the facts involving Dennis,” Shull said. “Therefore, when he came there, if I let her talk about him, I should allow him to defend himself. I wish that situation never came up, which is why I’m leaning towards being a little more strict about what I allow citizens to say.”

At least three members of the BMA have indicated that maybe there should be a change to the public comment sections of the agenda. Some possibilities include allowing only agenda-item comments, while suspending the second public comment period temporarily. Or both could be allowed, but the mayor could be more strict about what and how things are said.

“I’ve tried to be lenient with the public because I wanted to make sure they got what they wanted to say, but some members of the public — a very small number of people — have stepped out of line,” Shull said. “We’re probably going to have to have a discussion about if we need to have stricter rules or suspend the public comment section for awhile until things calm down. I personally lean towards letting citizens get their views on things out but being more strict on how they express it.”

Shull said the topic could come up at the next BMA work session, but noted that he would not be the one to initiate the discussion.

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