A group of wildfire victims from both Gatlinburg and Sevier County held a news conference on Tuesday to announce their collective "We The People" letter addressed to Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner and the board of Commissioners.
Wildfire survivors and concerned citizens chose Patriot Park in Pigeon Forge as a symbolic location to spread their message on the Fourth of July.
Wildfire survivor Darlene Verito read the letter aloud, which demands the repeal of Resolution Number 939. On June 20, 2017, the Gatlinburg Board of Commissioners passed the resolution that would change the rights of speakers in the public comment section of their meetings. Mayor Mike Werner said the change would make future meetings more "positive and productive."
Verito and others disagree, saying the new rules restrict their speech.
“If you’re going to bang your gavel and tell us to be quiet and sit down that’s a major concern. People want to feel safe here," Verito said. "We’re just asking and willing to help out with any changes that need to be made, but the fact that they just shut us up? It’s not right.”
The group said they feel their questions and concerns are being ignored by the city in the wake of the wildfires.
"The response I would like from the city is some compassion. To see that they really are concerned for the residents and tourists, because their actions thus far shows they are not concerned at all,” Verito said.
Before the change, citizens could enter their name and topic at the beginning of the meeting. The new resolution requires speakers to submit their questions, comments, or concerns in writing to the city manager no less than five days before the scheduled meeting. The speaker must also state the subject they want to address and limit their comments to that topic.
At the meeting, each speaker is allowed three minutes, which is the same rule as before, and if they stray from their subject, the Mayor will call them out of order. Any person can be denied the option to speak with a majority vote from the Board.
Resolution No. 939 also states individuals will not be allowed to "verbally attack officials or other individual."
Many other municipal meetings, such as the Sevier County Commission, have long adhered to similar rules on public comment time and preparation.
At the same meeting where commissioner's passed the new resolution, Hurricane Katrina and Gatlinburg wildfire survivor Genie Brabham questioned Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner and city manager Cindy Cameron Ogle during the public comments portion. Brabham, 61, lost her home and two cats in the Chalet Village North community. She objected to Mayor Werner's comments given in a televised interview, stating "the disaster changed our lives for the better."
While Brabham was speaking, Mayor Werner interrupted, "Well, Ms. Brabham, I'm not going to sit here and have you--" and Brabham interrupted stating, "Did you hear? I said I lost everything." Werner continued his injection, "--do that" and slammed his gavel.
Mayor Werner then demanded Brabham be seated.
The exchange between Brabham and Mayor Warner was recorded and posted to social media. Since, many have expressed concern for Gatlinburg's new resolution. Some have called it an "intentional limitation of an individual's free speech rights."
The letter addressed to Mayor Werner states:"Dear Mayor Werner and All City of Gatlinburg Commissioners:
We the People of the United States, the Residents of Sevier County and the City of Gatlinburg, hereby demand your immediate repeal of Resolution No. 939 restricting our free speech rights and violating the Constitutions of the United States of America and the State of Tennessee.
Resolution No. 939, as passed by your Commission on June 20, 2017, compels individuals to submit a written request to the City in advance of public comments during commission meetings, requires individuals to disclose their intended topics to you prior to commission meetings, and allows you to deny an individual’s right to free speech by a majority vote of the Commissioners.
We refuse Resolution No. 939 on the basis that, in part, your resolution violates our individual and collective rights of free speech as granted under the Constitution of the United States of America, and under the Constitution of the State of Tennessee. We hereby demand your immediate repeal of Resolution No. 939 on or before, but not later than, your next scheduled Commission meeting. Shall you refuse to repeal your unconstitutional limitations of our civil rights, we will invoke the assistance of the Americans Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others to pursue all necessary and appropriate legal action(s) against the City of Gatlinburg, and we will pursue all other remedies available to us.Kindly govern yourselves accordingly.
The People of the United States of America,
The Residents of Sevier County, Tennessee,
The Residents of the City of Gatlinburg, Tennessee"
The city of Gatlinburg has released the following statement ahead of Tuesday's news conference:
"The City of Gatlinburg through this resolution has established a system for public communication at Commission meetings that will streamline communications from the public and provide time for officials to prepare to respond in a timely fashion to questions posed by citizens.The public is invited and encouraged to attend these meetings. Anyone wishing to speak under Petitions and Communications from the Public on an item not on the Agenda must submit a request in writing to the Gatlinburg City Manager’s office by 4:30 p.m. on the Friday prior to the meeting. Anyone wishing to speak about an item that is on the agenda can sign up the evening prior to Commission meeting."