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Legislative Committee Meeting Minutes – April 1, 2024 – (Unapproved)

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1 APRIL 2024

The Chair Commissioner Matt Rubelsky opened the meeting asking Commissioner Roger Reedy to offer a prayer and lead the pledge.  The minutes of the 9 February 2024 meeting were moved for approval by Commissioner Joyce Woodard, seconded by Commissioner Evan Baddour, and were unanimously approved. 

First Agenda Item:  The Chair then asked County Executive (CE) Graham Stowe for announcements.  Announcements included the necessity of  a committee to review cost estimates for the ambulance building and E911 dispatch center; the draft subdivision standards will require a 30-day notice for a public hearing; what can/can’t be put on a referendum, noting a private act would be required for some areas such as reducing commissioner numbers.  A member of the public, Renee Bryan, asked about public requesting by petition for something to be placed on the ballot.  The CE mentioned that excepting issues allowed by Private Act and General Assembly permission, only two specific issues could be addressed as referenda per statute, those being liquor by the drink and new taxes.  Commissioner Matthew Hopkins said many of his constituents want liquor by drink repealed, and thought that if the public got 500 signatures, that could be put on the ballot.  The CE said that liquor by drink can be placed on the ballot by a 2/3 vote of the Commission, but he would check statutes and pursue CTAS guidance on the public petition.  Commissioner David Adams mentioned another county who had required 1/3 qualified citizens on the petition being used.   (At this time Commissioner David Wamble replaced Commissioner Terry Jones on the committee.)  Commissioner Evan Baddour asked if such an approval happened, would restaurants lose their previously approved right to sell liquor by the drink, with several of the Commissioners thinking they would be “grandfathered” in as approved.  Commissioner David Wamble commented that in the county’s desire to attract new restaurants, a decision not to approve would affect the restaurants significantly since drinks often make the restaurants profitable and without drinks unprofitable.  He further stated the commissioners’ obligation is not to define their constituents’ moral decisions.  The Chair noted it is for moral and for character, and Commissioner Roger Reedy also said it is rights as well, noting that establishing distances from churches is a right.  Commissioner Reedy also stated the state is usurping counties’ rights in that they will allow liquor sales, where beer sales are determined by counties.  He suggested the state be requested to change that, with the CE noting that the county’s state representative would likely be joining the commission meeting in May.  Ms. Bryan discussed a radio announcement from Lynn Garner and Chris Morris where the procedure to place an item on the ballot by the public was described.

2nd Agenda Item – Rule Addition for Public Hearings.   The CE noted there are several potentially contentious issues that would benefit from public hearings where the public need to have a voice, e.g., justice center vs courthouse repairs; and reducing the number of commissioners from 21 to 14.  The thought was the public hearing could be done prior to a commissioner meeting on that subject, where a couple of hours could be devoted exclusively to hearing from the public. The draft Rule states that if there were a 2-hour public hearing on a particular topic, then comments on that one topic during the commission’s business meeting would be abbreviated to 10 minutes.  The proposed Rule Commissioner Matthew Hopkins asked why have public hearings when the commissioner meeting is open to the public.  Per the CE the public hearing would be to improve public engagement over the status quo, separate and distinct from commissioner business meetings, with Commissioner Evan Baddour also adding it would be extend public opportunities to be heard.  Commissioner Gayle Jones commented that public discussion in the full commission meeting shouldn’t be limited, noting that meeting has more gravitas.  Ms. Bryan asked about Rule 7 from the provided draft which limits speakers to 10 minutes for the full commission meeting comments.  Commissioner Matthew Hopkins also commented that if there could be only five speakers, who determines who gets to speak; the CE agreed that the existing Rules don’t address that.  Commissioner David Adams supported a sign-up list where everybody speaks.  Commissioner Rose Brown asked about the time for a public hearing, i.e., 5 or 5:30 p.m.  She noted some are still working at that time and suggested two meetings on same subject with the CE stating that was a possibility.  Commissioner Evan Baddour noted there may be a need to add time for discussion and questions to ensure clarity.   Commissioner Gayle Jones said she did not support discussion only from public without the commissioners’ ability to respond.  Commissioner Erin Curry provided an example of where most public comments on the budget are answered by the Financial Director without commissioners responding.   Commissioner James Lathrop said the public should be informed by both pro and con information on the subject prior to the public expressing their concerns/support; CE agreed and stated that the plan called for introductory presentations to frame the issue.  Commissioner Annelle Guthrie noted that the public can submit questions ahead of time, but the bigger problem is that often some of the commissioners do not show up for such a meeting; the CE stated the public will surely notice.  Commissioner Matthew Hopkins said some public speak and leave shortly afterwards, but that he liked the idea of public hearings, and that he was not going to vote to stop free speech.  He then commented that even if we had a 2-hour public hearing, he did not want to abbreviate public comment in full commission meetings, stating that was censorship.  Commissioner Judy Pruett said the public should certainly be allowed to speak but you can’t have a public hearing without reasonable boundaries; if members of the public can’t be there then the proposed Rule allows them to submit written questions, and that reasonable time limits shouldn’t be considered censorship.  Commissioner Erin Curry said in her work, with discussion on roads, many people who cannot attend submit comment cards; that could be an option.  Commissioner David Wamble said if you start with a good presentation, setting the tone for the meeting, it would help reduce the time needed.  Commissioner Evan Baddour said he liked an open approach, but had concerns about capping at three minutes.  Commissioner David Adams said, regarding speakers should be a Giles County citizen, that he knows several property owners that pay Giles County taxes but do not live in Giles County.  Commissioner Evan Baddour on changing the verbiage to “Giles County taxpayers” said there are some underaged citizens who might want to speak.  Commissioner James Lathrop said the role of commissioner is to “represent” Giles County citizens. The CE clarified that existing Rules state that any Giles County citizen can speak.  Commissioner Judy Pruett asked if each meeting would be limited to one subject with the CE saying yes.  After considerable discussion, the common consensus was to table this for the time being, per the Chair. 

3rd Agenda Item – Commissioner Compensation.  Noted that any changes to commissioner compensation can only be executed after the next election cycle.   Commissioner Judy Pruett mentioned how many times this has been discussed and declared her support for a flat salary for all commissioners.  Commissioner David Wamble said should look at every angle, e.g. establishing consistent meeting times.  Commissioner Roger Reedy, using his considerable experience as a commissioner, gave some background information, and noted today’s commissioners knew pay and meeting times when they chose to run, and that would be helpful for future candidates as well.  He considered the approach now to be unprofessional in that personal scheduling could be overcome by somewhat random county meetings.  The Chair gave an example from another county which generally schedules meetings on an established schedule, most after 5 or 6 p.m.  Commissioner Evan Baddour noted that the pay per meeting offered an incentive to attend.  The CE said if the commissioners decide to tie their compensation to  CE pay, then commission pay would be automatically indexed for inflation.  Commissioner Judy Pruett said she sees her position as being for public service, and that she knew what she was choosing when she ran.  Commissioner David Adams said commissioners should at least be paid for transportation costs and lunch (according to meeting time).  Commissioner David Wamble noted that some counties divide the CE pay for number of commissioners but the concern was the need to incentivize meeting attendance.  The CE said that if the commission went with a flat salary to simply add a disincentive for missing meetings, subtracting $50 for non-attendance.  A motion by Commissioner Matthew Hopkins, seconded by Commissioner David Wamble, was made to do just that, divide the CE pay by number of commissioners and subtract $50/meeting for non-attendance.  Several commissioners questioned the $50 deduction in that it might wind up being higher than payment that month; for missing with legitimate excuse e.g., health reasons; which meetings apply e.g., ones where individuals are appointed.  After all discussions a vote on the above motion was taken, and the motion was approved unanimously. 

4th Agenda Item – Commission Meeting Times.  A motion by Commissioner Hopkins, and seconded by Commissioner Annelle Guthrie was made to set all meetings after 5 o’clock p.m. or later was made.  Commissioner David Wamble noted that Chairs determine the meeting time, so this motion would be a Rule change and need a 2/3 majority vote for approval.  Commissioner Judy Pruett noted that many have evening conflicts with Commissioner James Lathrop also noting this change would not be good for all, and that the Chair should continue selecting the time.  Commissioner Erin Curry said she personally loses money for day meetings, but is fortunate to have a flexible job.  She also noted as Budget Chair she calls some of those meetings after the School Board meets (on Thursday nights), so those meetings have to happen on Friday.  Further, meeting schedules have to revolve around public notice requirements and packet assembly of the County Clerk, as well as a challenge for department heads to attend meetings after working hours.  A vote on the motion failed 4 to 3, with Commissioners Baddour, Wamble, Woodard and Pruett voting no and with Commissioners Guthrie, Hopkins, and Rubelsky voting yes.  Commissioner Wamble noted this could be brought up anyway at the full commissioner meeting. 

5th Agenda Item – Reducing number of commissioners from 21 to 14, with 2 elected commissioners per district.  The Chair noted this would only be in effect in the next elected term.  A motion by Commissioner David Wamble to do so was made, seconded by Commissioner Judy Pruett.  Ms. Bryan commented that reduction does not provide sufficient representation for the people.  Commissioner Joseph Sutton considered the reduction would result in a reduction in the voice of the people and potentially impact how people are considered for election.  Commissioner Annelle Guthrie noted with decreased numbers it would be easier for some to control full commission on controversial issues.  Commissioner Joyce Woodard noted with an even number the CE would be required to break the tie more often.  The CE noted that with Giles County having roughly 20K voters that each representative now has 950 constituents and with a reduced number that would be about 1400, which is not unreasonable.  He mentioned another county that also went from 21 to 14, but with every commissioner serving on every committee, which helped the entirety of the commission to stay abreast of all facets of county business, and making the full commission meetings more streamlined.  Commissioner James Lathrop suggested adding one representative at large, thereby breaking the even number conundrum.  Commissioners Adams noted that with 3 for each district, that all three get different calls.  Commissioner Roger Reedy noted that smaller groups are easier to get things done, especially if all are on committees.  Commissioner Wamble asked if this could be put on ballot with the CE saying that he asked that question as well, and it would require a General Assembly Private Act.  A vote was taken on the motion and passed 5 to 2, with Commissioners Joyce Woodard and Annelle Guthrie voting no. 

Given the meeting’s decisions, the CE requested guidance on how the committee would like to proceed.  He suggested a resolution on the pay; that Commissioner Hopkins may draft meeting time Rule changes if he’d like to move that proposal forward; and that possibly we hold a public hearing to discuss the 21 v. 14 commissioner decision. The Chair and committee agreed.

With no unfinished business or new, Commissioner Matthew Hopkins moved for adjournment, and with Commissioner David Wamble providing the second, the motion was approved unanimously. 

ATTENDEES ON COMMITTEE:  Chair Commissioner Matt Rubelsky, Commissioners Evan Baddour, Terry Jones (replaced during meeting by David Wamble), Joyce Woodard, Annelle Guthrie, Judy Pruett, and Mathew Hopkins (replacing Caleb Savage absent)     Other Commissioners attending:  James Lathrop, David Adams, Gayle Jones, Rose Brown, Erin Curry;, Joseph Sutton, Roger Reedy      Others: County Executive Graham Stowe, and members of public Scott Stewart and Renee Bryan