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People gather to listen as the Hamilton County Commission discusses Resolution Number 1018-14, which was a proposal to set aside $3 million in bond money to purchase land off Mahan Gap Road for a wastewater treatment plant, at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Oct. 3, 2018.

Hamilton County commissioners are debating restricting access to the balcony in their meeting room, but it's not clear if they're worried about snipers or cellphone cameras.

A resolution on the Dec. 5 agenda would prohibit "access onto the press gallery of any non-credentialed news media persons."

The gallery is up a flight of stairs at the back of the commission room, overlooking the audience chairs and the commission dais. It's where local television stations set up their cameras to cover the weekly agenda or voting sessions.

The proposed resolution came out of a Legal Committee meeting last week, Commissioner Greg Martin said Wednesday. "Professional media," such as the Times Free Press and local TV news, could use the gallery with no questions asked, according to the resolution.

Nonprofessionals such as bloggers, live-streamers and others, could get access by asking the commission chairman 24 hours in advance, according to the resolution.

Martin called it a security issue.

"One of the things we're trying to do is make sure that we have an area that's designated for our credentialed media," he said. "Sometimes we've had some folks that have gotten into the balcony that maybe weren't [professional media].

"We're not trying to prohibit anybody from covering and writing their story about what's happening at the commission meeting. I think one of the concerns would be we don't always see what's going on in the balcony, there's people up there and we can't see them. That could be a concern if someone was up there and had the 'higher ground,' so to speak."

When Commissioner Warren Mackey pointed to Sheriff Jim Hammond in the audience, saying, "We've got the sheriff to protect us," Hammond stood to weigh in.

"Customarily when we do security checks for churches we always tell them their balcony is a great risk for people who would want to harm, whether it be to throw something or use a weapon, so we're a little nervous about balconies," Hammond said.

Chairman Sabrena Smedley added that after some "complaints and some concerns" several weeks back, "we looked into this and found that all we have is that sign that says 'media only' and there was no written policy, so this is why the legal committee took this up."

The only recent incident anyone could cite took place a few weeks ago when Commissioner Tim Boyd's daughter was on the gallery live-streaming the commission meeting on Facebook. A commissioner on the dais objected that she wasn't with the media and a deputy asked her to go downstairs.

Upset by her ejection, Boyd confronted the deputy, who took the incident seriously enough to write a report on the face-off. Sheriff Jim Hammond's office said the report went to the county attorney's office and would not be publicly released.

Boyd told the Times Free Press he wasn't confronting the deputy, only trying to get close enough to whisper to him and not disturb the ongoing meeting.

On Wednesday, Boyd didn't indicate he thought the resolution arose from that incident. He did ask for a definition of "credentials."

"When this discussion started, I contacted a couple of well-known writers with publications in the area and both of them told me they had no 'media credentials,'" Boyd said. "So I was wondering, have we defined what credentials means?"

Reporters and photographers of the Times Free Press, as well as staff of some other local media outlets, are credentialed as members of the Tennessee Press Association.

He also questioned whether restricted access would violate Tennessee's Constitution.

Although Tennessee's Constitution and state law say government meetings are open to the public, Dee Hobbs, with the Hamilton County Attorney's Office, said the commission may set guidelines for access to the gallery.

"How to actually carry that out and make it effective and make it fair and keep it from challenge is what you're asking," Hobbs said, promising to do some research.

Commissioner David Sharpe called for "clarity" on the process for people to access the gallery. The resolution merely calls for 24 hours' notice to the chairman, he said. So what is the chairman supposed to do with the notice? Tell other commissioners? Notify the deputy on duty at the meeting?

The resolution should be "as clear as possible for those that may wish to participate in some type of media capacity, just to avoid confusion," Sharpe said.

Afterward, he said he may suggest a clarifying amendment at Wednesday's voting session.

Commissioners also will vote Wednesday on a resolution barring people from carrying or displaying signs during meetings.

Smedley said there's no rule now against signs, though some audience members who waved signs at a recent commission meeting were asked to take them out of the room.

That vote will come a week before the commission's Zoning Committee debates whether to permit a new sewage treatment plant off Mahan Gap Road, and two weeks before the full commission vote on the controversial plant.

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

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