Hamilton County Commission tables resolution to limit balcony access

Hamilton County Commission tables resolution to limit balcony access

December 5th, 2018 by Judy Walton in Breaking News

Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / People watch and listen in October as Hamilton County Commissioners discusses a proposal to set aside $3 million in bond money to purchase land off of Mahan Gap Road for a new and controversial wastewater treatment plant.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

The balcony in the Hamilton County Commission's meeting room will be open to all after commissioners tabled a resolution to allow access only by credentialed media members.

The upstairs loft has always been the place for television cameras to set up, and a sign at the bottom of the stairs states that only media is allowed.

But a resolution was put on the agenda last week making the balcony officially off-limits to non-media after what Chairman Sabrena Smedley called a couple of complaints of "people going into the balcony who aren't media."

Smedley said the county had no written policy limiting balcony access to the media, and "we either need to have a policy or take down the sign."

The stumbling block is defining "news media." One of the initial issues arose over Commissioner Tim Boyd's daughter streaming commission meetings on Facebook Live from the balcony — is she a member of the media? How about a blogger?

Last week, Commissioner Greg Martin suggested employees of "professional media" such as the Times Free Press and local TV have automatic access, and others could use the balcony with the chairman's position.

"I just want to know who's up there," Martin said.

That drove a lengthy discussion that ranged over credentials, possible infringement of the First Amendment and security concerns for commissioners and the public.

Those topics all came up again this week, with no resolution. He suggested tabling the motion until the commission could come up with guidelines, and a motion to do so passed 5-4. It would take a supermajority 9-3 vote to take the resolution off the table.

Commissioners voted to pass a resolution banning people from carrying or displaying signs in the commission room.

Smedley said the resolution had nothing to do with a hearing set for next week on a controversial sewage treatment plant proposed for Mahan Gap Road.

Hamilton County's Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority, under pressure from the EPA and Justice Department to stop sewage overflows into local creeks and rivers, wants to build the $45 million plant as part of a much bigger cleanup plan over the next two decades.

Most of the 3,500 or so homeowners who live within two miles of the proposed plant are dead-set against it. Busloads of them are expected to be present Dec. 12 when the commission's zoning committee debates whether to grant a special permit for the plant.

The full commission is set to vote on the committee's recommendation Dec. 19.

Smedley told commissioners Wednesday to clear their calendars for next week's zoning hearing, as she intended to give all sides time to speak on this "very important vote."

"This is a huge issue, it may be one of the biggest issues we face," Smedley said. "It's only right to give people ample time."

Martin pointed out that the commission's rules say individual speakers may have three minutes and a delegation may have 10 minutes, with a total time of 20 minutes per issue.

He said the commission may suspend those rules but only by a two-thirds majority vote. He said previous public meetings on the sewage plant have gone on for hours.

The commission meeting is different, he said.

"It's our meeting and the public is to observe it. It's not a public meeting in the sense that everyone gets to be a part of it. I would not be for changing the rules at all unless we have a time specific," Martin said.

Vice Chairman Randy Fairbanks took exception to Martin's statement.

"I represent District 1, and I think those constituents would hate if they heard me make the comment, 'this is our meeting,'" Fairbanks said. "We're doing the public's business here. We have resolution to spend $45 million. I'll clear my schedule if we have to sit here from 9:30 to 6 o'clock at night."

Smedley said she would consult with County Attorney Rheubin Taylor on speaking times.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.