LEGISLATIVE COMMITTEE MEETING MINUTES
12 SEPTEMBER 2023
Chairman Commissioner Evan Baddour opened the meeting acknowledging the attendance of members of the Agri-Park Board of Directors (BoD). Commissioner Matt Rubelsky offered a prayer and led the pledge. The minutes of 11 August 2023 were moved for approval by Commissioner Joyce Woodard, seconded by Commissioner Rubelsky, and were approved unanimously. The County Executive (CE) Graham Stowe also acknowledged the Agri-Park BoD members attendance but stated their attendance was not representative of a meeting for that BoD.
The Chair thanked the Agri-Park BoD for all their work done in the past, and also thanked County Attorney Chris Williams for his work as well. He discussed the last Legislative Committee meeting where a joint meeting with the Agri-Park committee was recommended, and mentioned the areas of discussion as being the Agri-Park continue as is, and incorporate a Treasurer or come under County Commission control. The County Attorney was asked about specifics of liability, which he differentiated between a genuine liability or a control issue, which he termed more a policy. The Chair called out four words currently in the approved rules, those being “male or female impersonators”, which given some recent laws may open the county up to liability. He mentioned other counties (Shelby and Blount) whose governments have been sued after attempts to enforce similar rules which have been ruled unconstitutional. He recommended those four words be struck from the rules or suspend all in light of two federal judges’recent ruling that wording is unconstitutional. This recommendation is made, he stated, to reduce the county’s potential liability. Commissioner Mathew Hopkins asked liability for who with the chair responding for the county commission. We don’t want to be liable on something we have no control over (referring to the Agri-Park BoD decision authority). County Attorney Williams said with a separate Board set up, and with the government tort liability act, the Commission is insulated in a number of criminal type lawsuits unless owned and controlled by certain entities. Further that taking ownership would increase the potential of liability. The County Attorney discussed when the Agri-Park was established, that being when the county fair moved from Sam Davis Park to the Agri-Park location and the BoD was set up. He pointed out that liability can be found everywhere, in common occurrences such as prayers in government ownedlocations. Re the control issue he called out four “mechanisms”, 1) keep board as is, give up a degree of control, 2) take over control, requiring the CE to hire a Parks & Recreation Department, 3) leave to board (obligation under lease, with more financial management depending on terms of lease, and giving up control for however long the lease covers), and 4) sell, which county owning the park provides quality of life circumstances for the public.
Commissioner Shelly Goolsby mentioned having more representation on the BoD provides control, with the CA saying, no, the BoD has autonomy. Lions Club representative and caretaker of the park, Benny Birdsong, said when the BoD was established there were equal representation on the BoD, with five from service organizations and five from county government. Commissioner Joyce Woodard discussed the purchase cost of the park and that the clubs put in a significant amount and then turned over responsibility to the local government to take care of the park. The County Attorney returning to the issue of removing the four words discussed free speech and constitutional issues, noting there have been challenges and currently there is an interim hold on the process. Commissioner Rubelsky said I don’t know why we are discussing this, that a lot of time has passed since approving, the BoD have worked really hard setting this up; that before there was nothing formalized and we needed a foundation. The Chair noted the approved rules were developed prior to the federal judges’ ruling and rules need to adapt to circumstances. Commissioner Roger Reedy asked the County Attorney could the state and/or the local county commission be sued over this issue, with the County Attorney answering and discussing the complication of the state statute. He mentioned that some agree and some do not. My job is to defend the language which I said previously I will defend. The Chair noted when federal judges rule on law that is the law, with the County Attorney noting this is not the final ruling. The chair mentioned a news article in the Tennessean from February 2023, “Rural Tennessee county jumps into drag show debate with new park rules,” which focuses on Giles County and provides quotes from multiple Giles county officials as well as the ACLU who has eyes on this language. Commissioner James Lathrop stated how the Agri-Park is organized and stated it’s what most want, and recommended we “leave it alone”. Commissioner Gayle Jones noted that people don’t like autonomy, referencing a previous statement on the BoD’s autonomy. She said we all have different backgrounds and different voices, and that the BoD is a quasi-government board, coming to the county when they need funds. She further asked about not just defensible, but winnable? The chair noted with the four word change it would be.
Further discussion centered around: should we look at other non-profits in light of control; are we following rules on non-profits; need representatives from all districts on the BoD; one district representative “people don’t want drag shows” vs the Chair, people in my district want us to reduce the tax dollars at risk from having to defend lawsuits in cases like this; use the park in ways morally acceptable; what exactly is an impersonator (giving examples of children dressing in costumes); financial responsibility. It was noted that the Agri-Park’s mission statement is not legally binding but does effectively highlight park purposes.
Discussion then addressed how to proceed with a suggestion there be a MoU between the Agri-Park BoD and local government and put that before the county commission. Question from Commissioner Hopkins on which committee would have this responsibility to initiate, and what direction would be included. Commissioner Gayle Jones asked about developing such a MoU by this elected term of commissioners and would it still be in effect after next election. The County Attorney said some counties are using a 50-year block for retention. The Chair said we all want the clubs to remain, and that some commissioners ran on this issue, stopping drag shows, but we swore to uphold the constitution and until a higher Court overturns the federal courts’ rulings, it’s unconstitutional. Questions were raised on the legality of some of the terms, such as impersonators, and rules developed that reflect the will of the people. The CE noted the complete absence of these concerns when Rules were being drafted, and asked why not show up at the Agri-Park BoD meeting to express opinions before the Board. The Chair stated the commission remains liable and the BoD do not want to make any changes. Commissioner Gayle Jones supported the full commission be involved, and also as an aside, that cameras be installed at the Agri-Park. She further stated that it only requires one person to put the issue on the full commission agenda. Commissioner Judy Pruett also recommended taking directly to the full commission.
The Chair moved to old or new business discussion. Commissioner Terry Jones developed a proposed resolution -stating that all commissioners be approved and assigned to all committees (currently one commissioner from each district is on a committee). Questions on why have a full commission meeting if already met according to this resolution; make this a work session for discussion; attendance missed, so less votes from that district; public needs to hear deliberations; don’t see reason to change; although in committee may be voted down but full commission might approve; needs to be checked for statutory requirements. A motion by Commissioner Terry Jones to approve the resolution, seconded by Commissioner Matt Rubelsky, failed to be approved, with the following Commissioners voting no: Judy Pruett, Joyce Woodard, Mathew Hopkins, and Evan Baddour.
Motion to adjourn by Commissioner Joyce Woodard, seconded by Commissioner Terry Jones, was made and was approved unanimously.
ATTENDEES: Members of the Committee: Chair Commissioner Evan Baddour, Commissioners: Joyce Woodard, Terry Jones, Annelle Guthrie, Mathew HopkinsforCaleb Savage (absent), Judy Pruett and Matt RubelskyOther Commissioners in attendance: Rose Brown, David Adams, Erin Curry, Shelly Goolsby, Gayle Jones, Dr. James Lathrop, Roger Reedy, Joseph Sutton, Brad Butler, Tim Risner, Other Attendees: County Executive Graham Stowe, County Attorney Chris Williams, Pat Ford, Benny Birdsong, Jason Doggett, members of the public