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County commissioners could be looking for meeting room
Deborah Evans
Deborah Evans

A controversy in Warren County government that began in the public eye has taken a turn toward electronic correspondences. 

Warren County commissioners voted Monday, July 20, to hold their August session in person, not via online conferencing, due to recurring difficulties in conducting business using Zoom. That resolution was presented by Commissioner Steven Helton and was approved 18-4.

On Tuesday, July 21, at 5:45 p.m., Helton emailed fellow commissioners and reiterated that County Executive Jimmy Haley could deny commissioners use of the administrative building and if that be the case, the meeting could be held at old Morrison School. However, if any commissioner had an alternate suggestion that would be considered. 

Commissioner Deborah Evans replied. 

“Personally I feel this is a reckless decision to hold meetings in person with cases exploding throughout Warren County,” she said. “We are jeopardizing everyone’s health. Who will be responsible if one of us contracts the virus and died from it? The 18 of you who voted for such an irresponsible choice? That’s who I will blame.”

Evans, as well as Commissioners Carlene Brown, Daniel Owens and Christy Ross, voted against holding an in-person meeting. 

“Commissioner Evans, I respect your opinion, as I do the strong majority that voted for this,” said Commissioner Blaine Wilcher, who is chair of the County Commission. “The votes are easy to see on our Zoom meeting on YouTube. You may be lucky enough that you don’t have to go out into public each day. But most of us go to work every day, have to buy groceries, go shopping for necessities and so on. I think it would be a shame for us to tell our constituents that, even though we can do other things in public, we will draw the line at serving them to our best ability.”

On Wednesday, July 22, at 11:38 a.m., County Executive Jimmy Haley sent emails to 28 members of county government, including commissioners, department directors and his secretary. Excluded from the roster was Commissioner Helton.

“Neither the Chairman nor Commissioner Helton have had a conversation with me about this matter,” said Haley. “Neither was I brought into the dialog during the county court meeting Monday night … nor was our attorney asked for comment.”

Haley did not offer commissioners use of the administrative building.

“As you know... We have a few weeks to analyze health data while we wait on another possible shutdown by Gov. Lee,” said Haley. “With a health emergency placing daily operational challenges upon us, I prefer facts in decision making. Protecting the safety and security of every member of the commission and every county employee is my priority. That is how we continue to provide essential services to our residents.”

Helton was sent Haley’s email by Commissioner Randy England. 

“I was not copied on the email by either purpose or mistake,” said Helton, when contacted by the Southern Standard. “Either way, it takes two to communicate.”

Commissioners who do not wish to meet in person, said Wilcher in a later email, can call in on speaker phone with another commissioner who is present – an option approved by Charles Curtiss of the Tenneessee County Commissioners Association. 

Commissioner Carl D. Bouldin joined the mass email conversation on Thursday, July 23. 

“What I am about to say is only my opinion,” said Bouldin. “Everyone has the freedom and right to think and say as they feel although sometimes silence is golden! I voted for and very much prefer having our meetings in person and not on Zoom. But I respect others' right not to be comfortable in this because of COVID.”

Bouldin suggested that arrangements be made to allow the four commissioners to join the meeting via Zoom and if Haley does not allow the meeting to be held at the administrative building, for it be held via zoom. 

“I understand some won’t like this because they will feel as if someone imposed their will on us and got their way,” said Bouldin. “And to some degree, they did. But taking the meeting to a private third party place and spending taxpayers’ money to do so will, in my opinion, make every commissioner and the county executive look foolish!”

Said Wilcher in an email, “If we are not allowed to meet in the administrative building, I will have no choice but to call a special Zoom meeting to decide where and how we will meet next month. This will be an unnecessary cost to taxpayers, but I have to make sure that everyone knows where and how we will meet if we are unable to use the administrative building.”

As of Tuesday, Haley has not said if he will grant permission for commissioners to use the administrative building for the August meeting.