Maybe it’s just coincidence that Gatlinburg’s city commission is clamping down on public comment at a time when survivors of last November’s deadly wildfires are becoming more vocal in their search for answers.
Or maybe not
The newly-adopted rules require those who want to speak at public forum to sign up five days in advance of the next meeting and give advance notice of what they intend to talk about. Mayor Mike Werner can rule speakers out of order for deviating from the plan, or for being rude. Commissioners can vote to bar offensive individuals from speaking – in the service of civility and efficiency, or something.
This might sound familiar to those who have followed the evolution of the Knox County Board of Education in recent years.
In 2014, when fed-up teachers were speaking out against the policies of then-superintendent James McIntyre, some of his supporters on the board wanted to adopt a policy that would have required teachers to “exhaust the chain of command” before publicly airing their complaints.
That effort sputtered under charges of censorship. Gatlinburg’s new rules will take effect at the July 18 commission meeting.
Former commissioner and mayor George Hawkins is probably the city’s highest-profile dissenter. Hawkins, who lost a bid to rejoin the commission by 34 votes in the spring election, said he’s undecided about attending the next meeting, but strongly disagrees with the new speakers’ rules.
“Citizens have a right to voice concerns about the city they live in, and everybody needs to be heard,” he said. “Surely our city government isn’t planning to ignore facts.”