County approves rules on use of grounds; Occupy cries foul

County approves rules on use of grounds; Occupy cries foul

January 5th, 2012 by Ansley Haman in News

Document: Resolution on county property use

Resolution establishing rules and regulations for use of Hamilton County owned grounds and facilities by the general public.

With little discussion, the Hamilton County Commission on Wednesday unanimously passed formal rules and regulations for the public's use of county-owned property.

Now Occupy Chattanooga members and their legal counsel are waiting to see how and if the new rules are enforced against them.

The county's policy requires those seeking to hold activities on county property to seek permits. It also prohibits -- except for the benefit of those with disabilities -- tables, chairs, grills, open fires, tents and other structures erected for overnight sleeping.

"These rules and regulations basically follow the procedure of what we've been doing informally in this county for at least the last 34 years," said County Attorney Rheubin Taylor. "We are putting in writing what we've been doing all along."

The new rules don't specifically mention Occupy Chattanooga, the group that took up residence on the County Courthouse lawn two months ago. But the fact that the county didn't have formalized regulations for the grounds became apparent to commissioners and other officials after Occupy tents were erected.

The resolution, copies of which Taylor passed out during the meeting, was approved 9-0. The resolution was not on the agenda or considered during last week's agenda session, which sets this week's meeting items.

Occupy Chattanooga's attorney, David Veazey, raised questions Wednesday afternoon about whether the commissioners' action provided adequate public notice, as required by the state's Open Meetings Act.

"I'm keeping a file on all these things, but I don't understand their argument for the emergency basis for these things since [the protesters have] been camped out there for quite a while," he said. "Part of what I think the Occupy people are protesting is the good ol' boy network in this county where they can just do whatever they want."

In November, commissioners held a private meeting with Taylor to discuss how to deal with the camping protesters. Then, last month, the commission passed a resolution -- also added to the agenda without previous discussion in the agenda session -- designating Chairman Larry Henry as the point person for enforcing laws on county property.

During Wednesday's meeting, one commissioner, attorney Jim Fields, questioned Taylor about a First Amendment aspect of the new policy.

"I just want to make sure that these procedures have been reviewed by the county attorney and you feel like they are appropriate to regulate the time, place and manner of this type of organization and use," Fields said.

"My office is quite familiar with it. We helped to draft it," Taylor responded.

Though Veazey said Occupy Chattanooga has been in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, which filed an injunction in federal court against the state when Occupy Nashville protesters were removed from the Legislative Plaza, the group is not representing the Chattanooga protesters because local officials haven't attempted to evict them.

"I think it might take an actual removal," he said. "If they do, we'll be ready."

Henry said the county will take the "necessary steps to enforce those rules and regulations."