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The Hamilton County Commission

After nearly 40 years in existence, the Hamilton County Commission may start hearing from residents before members cast their votes.

The commission is considering a resolution to allow public comment on items that are on commission agendas -- a wholly new practice for the nine-member body.

Currently, public comment during commission meetings is allowed only at the end of meetings, after votes have been cast.

Residents could theoretically address the commission publicly during agenda sessions, which happen a week before voting meetings -- if they happen to be there. Agendas are not made public until agenda sessions start at 9:30 a.m.

County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, who was a commissioner on the first county commission in 1978 and has been the county's attorney since, said that has always been the practice.

District 9 Commissioner Chester Bankston, who leads the commission's rules committee, said Wednesday the committee would recommend passage of the plan.

"I think this is a good resolution. I think people need to be able to speak," Bankston said.

The issue came up last week, when Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West and others wanted to speak in opposition to a contentious resolution to approve an $800,000 tax break for a 64-unit apartment complex in downtown Chattanooga.

During that meeting, commission Chairman Jim Fields, who represents District 2, denied West a forum, citing the commission's rules. The tax break measure passed 5-3, with one abstention.

On Wednesday, Fields said sometimes the rules need to change.

"It's an issue that hasn't come up but once or twice, but it does come up. And it needs to be addressed," Fields said.

Commissioners hear a great deal from residents in the week between the agenda sessions and voting meetings, said District 3 Commissioner Marty Haynes. But Haynes said it is a good move to give residents a public option.

Under the proposed rule, commissioners would afford residents on each side of an issue up to three minutes per person, or 10 minutes for groups of three or more, Fields said.

West said Wednesday he was pleased to see that the commission may be making changes.

Commissioners will vote on the rule change next week. For the measure to pass, two-thirds of the commission -- or six commissioners -- must support it.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.