Gatlinburg wildfire survivors say they're being censored by new city resolution
Residents said officials are silencing them with a new resolution that gives them a right to deny requests to speak during board meetings
By Rachel Ohm
GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Survivors of the Nov. 28 Sevier County wildfire say city officials are silencing them with a new resolution that gives the board of commissioners the right to deny people's requests to speak during the public comment portion of board meetings.
"We demand to be heard," said members of the Gatlinburg Wildfire Survivors group in a statement read aloud by fire survivors Darlene Verito and Lauren Meier at a news conference outside City Hall on Wednesday.
"We demand answers from our city government. We demand the right to address our city's leaders and to receive answers as to why they left us to die on Nov. 28."
The group also presented a letter to Mayor Mike Werner, City Manager Cindy Ogle and the board calling on officials to "restore Constitutional First Amendment rights" and to reverse the resolution. More than 2,000 people have signed an online petition in support of the letter.
City officials, meanwhile, say Resolution 939, approved at the commission's June 20 meeting, was passed to streamline the public comment portion of commission meetings and they don't think it censors or restricts residents' right to speak, according to an email from Sevier County Communications Coordinator Perrin Anderson.
The resolution requires individuals to submit requests to speak on non-agenda items five days in advance of commission meetings. As has been the case in the past, anyone who wishes to speak on topics on the agenda also must sign up to speak before the start of the meeting, but can do so on the same day.
The resolution also states that the board has the right to deny a request to speak. There are no criteria for denying requests listed in the resolution, and Anderson said the only criterion for denying a request to speak is a majority vote by the board of commissioners.
Nothing in state law requires government bodies to hold public comment periods.
However, if comment periods are held, they need to have reasonable restrictions and not discriminate based on content, said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. She said she was concerned by a lack of criteria for how the board would decide if it wants to deny someone the chance to speak and the purpose for such denials.
"It looks like they’re saying, ‘You have to submit something in advance and we will decide whether or not you get to speak,’ but there were really no guidelines for that," she said.
Placing restrictions on public comment periods, such as time limits or limiting the comments to agenda items only, are typical and fall within the best practices of public comment periods, Fisher said.
She said, however, she was concerned by the resolution opening the door for officials to "pick and choose" who gets to speak and potentially limiting comments and questions to only certain topics.
Verito, one of the fire survivors, said she was told by the city the reason for asking people to submit requests in advance was so officials could research the topics before they would be discussed. She said she thought that was a good thing.
"But as far as limiting us as to what we can ask and what we can’t, that is a violation of free speech. We should be allowed to ask anything," she said.
Members of the Gatlinburg Wildfire Survivors group on Wednesday also submitted a list of 40 questions they hope will be addressed at the July 18 commission meeting.
They almost all relate to the city's response to the wildfires, including questions on the city emergency management plan, officials' response Nov. 28 and the setup of the Mountain Tough Recovery Team. They also include questions about recent elections, government transparency and tourism.
Members of the group at City Hall on Wednesday said they didn't know whether the questions they submitted would be approved or how that would be decided, though Anderson said anyone who signed up to speak for the July 18 meeting would be allowed to speak for three minutes on the subjects they indicated.
Since the fires, Anderson said, attendance at commission meetings has increased and there is more audience involvement, but the commission is not overloaded with questions.
Still, some residents and former residents say they have been frustrated by a lack of empathy and a lack of answers to the questions they are asking.
"They just don’t seem to have respect for our members or the residents of our city when they stand up and ask a legitimate question. It is ignored or treated rudely," said Sharon Hirschfield, a member of the survivors group.
Werner did not respond to a call for comment Wednesday. An employee at City Hall said Ogle, the city manager, was not available to talk to the media Wednesday morning.
Anderson said there are no plans for the board to reconsider the resolution. He also said city officials have made a point of trying to answer questions and directed a reporter to a list of frequently asked questions with responses on the city website.
But survivors said the resolution is part of an ongoing effort to ignore or purposely avoid answering questions the city doesn't like.
"We have lost loved ones," Verito and Meier said in their statement. "We have lost friends. We will not lose our rights to free speech in Gatlinburg or anyplace else."
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