BY SARAH GREGORY
The Greeneville Board of Mayor and Aldermen met in a workshop/public hearing Tuesday afternoon to start discussion of proposed amendments to the town charter.
The session, which followed a regular city board meeting and a Greeneville Beer Board meeting, was the first of three workshops on the proposed amendments that have been scheduled.
Others are scheduled on Feb. 19 and March 5, following regular meetings of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen at 4 p.m.
Interested citizens are being urged by Mayor W.T. Daniels to attend all of the workshops, at which there will be an opportunity to ask questions and give comments.
No formal action is taken at the workshops, which are designed only for discussion of the proposals.
Only a few citizens were present Tuesday afternoon to listen to the discussion, ask questions, make comments, etc.
Commenting on the process, Daniels said, "I hope that people will show up. I hope that they will want to send e-mails.
"We're going to be up-front with everybody [about the proposed amendments to the charter]. We're going to lay it out on the table."
WIDE VARIETY OF TOPICS
The charter changes proposed by City Administrator Todd Smith vary widely, from eliminating antiquated language in the charter and making adjustments related to the new administrator form of government, to removing certain town employees from the Civil Service system, eliminating the two town wards, and changing the terms of the mayor and aldermen from two years to four.
Town officials have stated that any of the proposed amendments that are eventually approved by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen would be submitted to the Tennessee General Assembly for its 2014 session.
Amendments to municipal charters require legislative approval as well as local board approval.
The following text details sections of the charter that were discussed Tuesday. The format includes: how the charter currently reads, proposed changes, and highlights of the discussion related to each one.
* Remove hiring and firing duties from the role of Mayor, thereby recognizing the change to a City Administrator form of government. Also, remove the Justice of the Peace duties from the position of Mayor.
In reference to the mayor's duties, the charter currently states:
"He shall have power to suspend any city officer for misconduct or dereliction of duty in office, reporting such action, with his reasons therefore, in writing, to an immediate special meeting of the board. He shall have all powers of a Justice of the Peace within the municipality for the purpose of keeping the peace and trying offenses against any ordinance or laws of the State."
Smith explained that, with the adoption in 2012 of the City Administrator form of government, hiring and firing duties are now handled by that official. The proposed amendment would recognize the change.
The section also gives justice of the peace duties to the mayor. The proposed change would remove those sentences entirely and thus remove that potential role for the mayor.
Smith proposed making the change because, he explained, in Greeneville the position of mayor is not like being a law enforcement officer.
* Remove the responsibility of serving as a back-up city judge from the positions of both mayor and recorder.
The charter currently states:
"That all necessary civil and criminal jurisdiction for the enforcement of the laws and ordinances passed by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen of said Municipality shall be and the same are hereby conferred upon the Recorder and the City Judge of said Town, either of whom shall have power to hear and determine all cases that may arise under such laws and ordinances, and in the absence of both the Recorder and the City Judge, the Mayor may hear and determine such cases as fully as the Recorder or the City Judge, but neither shall receive any compensation except as fixed by ordinance."
Another section of the charter focusing on appeals from city court decisions also refers to a judicial role by the mayor or the recorder.
The proposed change would drop references to either the recorder or the mayor acting as city judge.
Greeneville Police Chief Terry Cannon questioned, however, who would be able to sign Greeneville Police Department warrants in the absence of the city judge, if the mayor and recorder no longer have that authority.
"Right now, who we've been going to [to get warrants signed] is the recorder and the city judge," Cannon said.
The question kicked off considerable discussion, with the primary focus of the aldermen being limiting or avoiding legal liability related to having individuals without legal backgrounds signing arrest warrants.
"When I read the charter and I'm thinking of myself as the mayor -- as being the justice of the peace and [having] the judge responsibilities -- that's a little scary," said Daniels.
"I could see in the future where a mayor could do something that would get us in trouble.
"I just think you really need to be careful," he added.
"There's a reason a legal professional signs warrants," commented Smith. "Are we assuming that the mayor or the recorder has the ability to determine probable cause?"
"That's what we're assuming," said Cannon.
"That's what we've assumed in the past," said Alderman Buddy Hawk.
IDEA OF A JUDGE DESIGNEE
The group continued discussion, focusing on possible alternatives to the current practice under the charter of the mayor or recorder acting as judge when the city judge is not available for some reason.
One idea that seemed to gain traction was a suggestion by Cannon that a "judge designee" be established.
Even more specifically, Cannon suggested the designee be appointed by the city judge at the beginning of each term.
"That makes sense," said Alderman Darrell Bryan.
"I think Chief Cannon brings up a good point that what we need to do is allow our city judge to appoint that individual to serve in their absence -- that we set this up as part of the change," Daniels agreed.
"I think having a judge determine a designee will make sure there is a legal understanding," Alderman Sarah Webster remarked.
"I just think if you're going to pick a city judge, you need to have the same qualifications for their appointee," said Daniels.
Consistent with the discussion, the board consensus was that, on the back-up city judge issue, language would be inserted in the charter stating:
"... in the absence of the City Judge, the City Judge may appoint an attorney licensed by the State of Tennessee and practicing law within the Town limits of Greeneville to hear and determine such cases as fully as the City Judge."
* Allow for the option of publishing notice of new penal ordinances only on the Town's internet website.
In regard to notifying the public of changes in town ordinances, the charter currently requires:
"That all penal ordinances enacted by the Town of Greeneville shall be published once in a paper of general circulation in said town and county, and that the caption and a summary of all other ordinances shall be published once, which publications shall be made promptly after enactment."
A change in the charter proposed by Smith would modify that section to read:
"That all penal ordinances enacted by the Town of Greeneville shall be published once in a paper of general circulation in said town and county and/or upon the Town of Greeneville's official Internet website, and that the caption and a summary of all other ordinances shall be published once, which publications shall be made promptly after enactment."
"All we are suggesting," Smith told the board, "is that we have the opportunity to publish these on our official Internet website."
He said that some other towns were taking similar steps.
"It's just the 'and/or'?" asked Alderman Bryan. "Both can be done, correct?"
"Both can be done, absolutely," said Smith.
Alderman Keith Paxton raised a question about the Town's new website, asking if the Town has made enough progress on it to start using it for such a purpose.
"We can," Smith replied. "We've got our agendas on the website."
He also noted that the Town's Charter and ordinances are also posted on the website.
The discussion continued, with aldermen asking about the website's traffic, or usage.
"I don't think it matters how many people are using the website," said Webster.
"It's just another way of getting the information out. There are some people who only check that.
So we want to try to cover as many people with information that they need in whatever fashion they get it," she said.
The other aldermen, as well as Daniels and Smith, indicated they were in agreement.
John Jones Jr., editor of The Greeneville Sun, was among those attending the workshop and asked to speak to the board about this proposed amendment to the charter.
He said it seemed clear by the discussion on this subject that the board's desire "is to communicate the actions and the intentions of the Town to the people of the Town." He also commended the new Town of Greeneville website.
But he cautioned that "the law of unintended consequences" could come into play with the change in the charter as it was proposed.
Jones said that, at some future time, giving the Town administrative structure the option of notifying the public about new ordinances only on the Town's Internet website could be "very subject to manipulation."
He urged the board not to accept the change as presented and suggested an alternative approach that included both the one-time newspaper publication required under the present charter and publication on the Town's website.
He also pointed out that, "There's nothing to stop you as it is now from publishing any ordinance you're considering on your website."
COULD LEAVE OUT MANY
But he added, "I think that you don't want to put a land mine in your basic structural document that somebody in the future could misuse to try to restrict access to what they're doing."
If it was possible for new ordinances to be published only on the town's Internet website, he said, that method of informing the public would leave out anyone who either did not have access to the Internet or who was not comfortable with using a computer to access the Internet and find the Town's website.
He added that an extensive survey by the newspaper last year had shown that a surprisingly high percentage of Greeneville/Greene County citizens do not at this time have access to the Internet.
He acknowledged that the public has access to computers at the Greeneville-Greene County Library but said that option was not practical for some citizens because of work schedules, health, etc.
Jones said that a decision to remove the current requirement that the town publish a new penal ordinance once in "a newspaper of general circulation" could fuel distrust in government -- already an apparent growing problem in the nation.
'ACCEPTED, NEUTRAL SYSTEM'
"What you have by state law at the moment is an accepted, neutral system," he concluded.
The revenue involved is not significant for either the Town or the newspaper, he said. "The issue really is good government, accountability, and trust."
"I really think this is one of those times when you should emphasize the positive and do what you can do to add to what is already a good system."
"I think that's where we're coming from," Daniels responded, noting that radio should also be used.
"If we use as many potential venues as we have, then we can reach far more people than limiting ourselves to one or two," added Webster.
Airport Authority Janet Malone, who was also in the audience, then spoke briefly.
She said her understanding of the board's discussion on this point was that the members wished to use all suitable methods to communicate with the public.
Malone also strongly commended the board for being very pro-active in the last few years in addressing issues facing the Town government.
* Remove reference to 'Sabbath Breaking'
The charter currently gives the Board of Mayor and Aldermen the authority
"To prevent and punish by pecuniary penalties, all breaches of the peace, noise, disturbance, Sabbath-breaking, all disorderly assemblages in any street, house, or place in the municipality, by day or night, or in default of payment of penalties and costs thereof, imprisonment in jail or workhouse."
The proposed change would remove the term "Sabbath-breaking" since it is believed to be a reference to a no-longer-active ordinance that once required that almost all businesses be closed on the Sabbath.
"That was called the 'Blue Law,'" said Daniels, referring an old law he said was removed from the books during the 1970s.
* Allow appropriations for festivities, pageants, parades, etc
The charter currently prohibits the Town from making donations to festivities of various kinds by stating, in part:
"That the Board of Mayor and Aldermen are expressly forbidden from making any appropriations of money or credit in the way of donations for festivities, pageants, excursions, or parades ..."
The proposed change would strike out language forbidding appropriations for such festivities.
"The language in and of itself is confusing, I think," said Smith.
"And frankly, there might be, at some point, a festivitiy, pageant, or parade that we may want to make an appropriation in way of a donation for."
"That should be addressed in the budget, in my opinion -- be addressed in the [Greeneville Budget & Finance Committee]," said Bryan.
"And at some point in time, we need to spell it out. Because that could create some issues if we're not careful."
Aldermen agreed that the change would open the door to the potential for more requests for contributions to community events of various kinds.
"It opens a broader range of who we can give money to," said Paxton.
"But the board does have the final vote if we give money to it," Bryan responded.
"Your job is to say 'no' to it if it is frivolous spending," Smith commented.
Greeneville Public Works Director Brad Peters pointed out that the Town does contribute already to some community events through the use of Town manpower and resources.
"I just wanted to make everyone aware that even though the city doesn't make an appropriation -- to, say, the Christmas parade or the Iris Festival -- we are providing a lot of garbage collection and crowd control," he commented.
Greeneville Fire Chief Mark Foulks told aldermen that he felt the existing language in the charter was too restrictive on this point.
"I think it would definitely benefit us to take that statement out completely," he said.
"I think that's a decision you all can make at budget time, and at other times if necessary, to allow us to do things like [the kind of community events discussed]," Foulks added.