Hamilton County to repair courthouse lawn

Hamilton County to repair courthouse lawn

April 7th, 2012 by Ansley Haman in News

The lawn of the Hamilton County Courthouse remains cordoned off as grass is encouraged to grow back where tents belonging to the Occupy Chattanooga group were pitched for several months.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

Orange construction fences still surround the Hamilton County Courthouse lawn where Occupy Chattanooga tents and canopies stood from November through March 19.

The courthouse lawn remains brownish-green, bare in patches.

After the county racked up more than $16,000 in legal fees in December and January to file then drop a federal lawsuit against the group, Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said the county soon will pay to resod the lawn.

But he doesn't know what the total cost of repairing the lawn will be.

Henry said he doesn't regret having County Attorney Rheubin Taylor call in outside lawyers.

"We had to be sure we were protected from the county perspective," Henry said. "It took some experts in constitutional law to make sure we were protected."

Although the Occupy group is now completely gone from the courthouse, not even on the Georgia Avenue sidewalk where they were evicted on March 19, the group still Tweets, and its Facebook page has a photo of a sign tacked to the orange construction fence that states, "Mr. Henry, Take Down Your Fence."

An attorney for Occupy, David Veazey, said last week they might consider applying for a permit to return to the lawn under rules passed by commissioners in January, but Henry said he's received no requests.

"I haven't heard anything at all from them," he said Friday.

The standoff between commissioners and Occupiers began in early November when the group moved from its post outside Chattanooga City Hall to the courthouse lawn. The county had no formal rules governing use of the lawn.

At the time, a lawsuit had recently been lodged against the state for its attempted removal of a similar Occupy group on the Legislative Plaza in Nashville. A judge stopped the state from enforcing a newly created curfew against the Occupy members.

One of the court's primary concerns was the violation of the group's First Amendment rights, which require that government rules affecting speech, assembly, petition, press and religion be carefully constructed and not targeted toward a specific group.

In Hamilton County, several county commissioners huddled in a private legal meeting with Taylor in the first week of the occupation, seeking advice on how to respond.

But the commission didn't take official action until the end of December, when it voted on a late agenda item giving the commission chairman the power to deal with matters relating to county land.

A bill from the law firm Chambliss, Bahner and Stophel shows that Thomas Greenholtz and Hugh Moore, Jr. began billing the county that week. The county paid $6,204 for the December work, records show.

On Jan. 4, in another late-added agenda item, commissioners approved new rules for use of county land. They banned tents, tables and open fires.

Rather than enforcing those rules and allowing Occupy to sue the county if it wished, Hamilton County took the novel step of pre-emptively suing the Occupiers. Henry and the commission filed a lawsuit against the group in federal court, seeking a ruling that the county's new policies were enforceable and asking for the group to pay for attorney's fees.

During January, Chambliss, Bahner and Stophel billed the county $10,500 for their work. Bills for February and March weren't available on Friday.

Occupy Chattanooga, with assistance from a Washington, D.C.-based attorney for Public Citizen nonprofit advocacy group, filed a motion to dismiss the commission's lawsuit. Two more rounds of procedural legal filings followed.

Though no hearing had been set in the case, the county dropped the matter on March 19 and instead chose to enforce its rules without waiting on a judge's order about their constitutionality.

Protesters spent a day or two on the Georgia Avenue sidewalk next to the lawn, but recently packed up and left.

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