Editorial: Keep personal attacks out of public meetings

Editorial Board • Dec 17, 2019 at 10:30 PM

Former Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips told the Board of Mayor and Aldermen recently that a public meeting of that body is hardly the place to raise a personal issue. He was exactly right. Public comments before that body should address city business, including consideration of proposed ordinances.

Phillips was upset with what he called “a system where you let people stand up here and tell flat lies on citizens and there’s no repercussions.”

There’s nothing in state law, much less Robert’s Rules of Order, that requires a public body to allow public comment at a meeting. It’s entirely a public board’s prerogative. And it’s right that the BMA allow such time for comment, even if those comments are sometimes uncomfortable and critical.

For certain, the BMA has found itself as a whole — and some elected officials individually — the target of an inordinate amount of criticism from those who oppose changes at Holston Valley Medical Center and those who opposed the approval and enactment of a city code amendment banning structures from the public right of way. It is fair to say that those two groups are virtually one and the same.

Of late, however, the comment portion of the BMA meetings has been abused, and intentionally so. It’s a let’s-dominate-the-session tactic. It’s not a new tactic. And it’s not an effective tactic. But those employing it seem to think that saying the same thing again and again — instead of presenting new views/arguments — makes something true or adds to its validity.

Those points aside, a handful of comments have become personal attacks. They were blatant attacks in a public forum on the integrity and ethics of individuals, one of which is now a private citizen. That’s unacceptable and, frankly, dangerous. Such comments should be the hard line in the sand for Mayor Pat Shull.

Recently Mayor Shull has threatened to clear the room due to outbursts. That’s reasonable. No one — well, almost no one — wants to see a BMA meeting turn into an unruly spectacle. But the mayor should also stop verbal personal attacks on anyone whether it is a sitting elected official, city employee, city contractor, or private citizen. He has that power and should exercise it.

We are not in favor of doing away with a commenting session at the BMA. And for those sessions we believe the list on limitations on what can be said should be a short list. But personal attacks of any sort should be at the top of that short list. And that limitation should be enforced stringently, no matter the origin.

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