By Richard Rourk
Tensions ran high at the most recent Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting as verbal exchanges between citizens and the Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch occurred during the last 30 minutes.
The Erwin Record, which was present at Town Hall during the start of the BMA, but had to leave to attend another meeting, was provided with a copy of the audio from the meeting. After listening to the audio recording, The Erwin Record reached out to all parties to field responses about what occurred.
The exchanges came at the end of the meeting when citizens have the opportunity to address the board. Earlier in the meeting, Lynch gave a proclamation claiming that, “We will have order in our meetings and there will be no intimidation or any other unruly behavior on our premises.”
According to Lynch, during the previous BMA meeting, held on Nov. 18, there was a complaint that two men approached a visitor, who had business at the meeting, in an “intimidating” way outside of the building. Lynch sent a letter to the men, one of whom was former Town of Unicoi alderman Roger Cooper.
Cooper addressed the BMA first on Dec. 16 and said he took offense to the letter.
“I had no confrontation with anyone after the meeting and I sure did not follow this so-called confrontation to the rear of the building,” Cooper said. “I left through the front doors, walked straight to my car, parked on the side of the building, and left, period. Not sure who this person is that reported this so-called confrontation and why you didn’t have the courtesy to state such person’s name, but nothing happened.”
According to Cooper, the letter went on to describe the behavior as “hooligan behavior.”
“You went on to say that ‘the representative will of the people will not be subverted by such hooligan like behavior’,” Cooper said. “This is probably the most unprofessional language that I have ever heard coming out of the Town of Unicoi. You, and whoever wrote this for you, should be ashamed for calling Town of Unicoi citizens a ‘hooligan’ without verification of the so-called confrontation.”
Cooper then requested an apology be made, and Lynch responded.
“You will not get an apology by me, sir, and I will also say this, we will not allow people who attend these meetings, especially if they are on our agenda, to be intimidated by you or anyone else,” Lynch said.
The next citizen to speak on Dec. 16 was Gwen Lewis, who presented concerns about the Clinchfield Caboose 1111 that was donated by the Clinchfield Railroad Museum Board of Directors by way of CSX Transportation. The BMA voted unanimously during a meeting on Nov. 18 to accept the donation of the caboose. Plans are in the works to have it refurbished and placed in the town. Lewis expressed concerns about the expense to the town for the caboose.
“You voted on this without input from the citizens and I hope this doesn’t become a neverending expense like some of the other decisions made by the board,” Lewis said.
Lynch responded to Lewis’ statements.
“We have had $2,000 in materials solicited for this; that’s not counting the other $1,000 in donations that we have received,” Lynch said. “People are interested in this; it’s part of their heritage. Leave it alone, it’s a done deal.”
Lynch also responded to a member of the crowd that was shaking his head in response to Lynch saying that, “we also have documentation that the caboose is a real Clinchfield caboose.”
The citizen was later identified as Bobby Davis.
“What are we talking to (Davis) for? There’s your response. If you wanted to talk, you should’ve filled out a form, otherwise you don’t,” Lynch said.
Lewis then responded to Lynch saying, “You called on him.”
Lynch then replied: “You folks are not even worth arguing with. It’s a done deal, we voted on it, deal with it.”
As the attendees started to talk, a gavel was struck and Lynch called “order.” Lewis stated that she still had one minute, and Lynch responded.
“You want to leave; you want to leave the meeting, well then shut up,” Lynch said.
Lewis’ husband, Wayne, escorted his wife out and said, “We will leave, but you don’t tell my wife to shut up.”
“I did,” Lynch said in response.
The next citizen to address the board was Deborah McWhirter, who expressed concerns regarding the expenses that the Mountain Harvest Kitchen and the Town of Unicoi Police Department accrue. McWhirter asked Lynch to resign over these expenses.
“Mister Mayor, who likes to spend so much money, I’m asking you to resign as the mayor of this town, because the town cannot afford anymore of your irresponsible spending,” McWhirter said. “Are you going to tell me to shut up too?”
“No, but I will say this, I saw your little ‘ad’ you put in the paper. I would suggest you start showing proof,” Lynch said. “This is a five man board; it is not fair you blame me and put it in the paper. The board voted on these things. I’m tired of putting up with you all.”
McWhirter responded. “Why don’t you resign,” McWhirter said.
Lynch countered: “Why don’t you resign, why don’t you go home.”
McWhirter then responded: “Why don’t you kiss my (expletive).”
Lynch responded. “It looks too much like your face in the first place.”
As the meeting was coming to a close, Alderwoman Kathy Bullen addressed the citizens in attendance over the earlier exchanges.
“As an elected member of this board, I’m embarrassed by the mayor’s behavior here today. For the citizens who were offended, I apologize,” Bullen said.
Lynch responded: “Aww, well thank you, honey.”
• • •
In the days after the meeting, The Erwin Record reached out to the parties involved with the verbal exchanges.
Cooper explained to The Erwin Record that he felt the mayor’s actions and tone were “hostile.”
“The mayor creates a very hostile and unprofessional environment towards anyone who challenges him on anything,” Cooper said. “People are past an apology. As Deborah (McWhirter) stated, the mayor should step down.”
For McWhirter, the experience wasn’t a surprise.
“I was not shocked, because he has verbally attacked before,” McWhirter said. “I am embarrassed that he caused me to lose my Irish temper, but he will not silence me from speaking out for the citizens of Unicoi.”
Bullen told The Erwin Record that she took exception to being called “honey” by Lynch.
“When the mayor leaned back in his seat and sarcastically and demandingly said, ‘Aww, well thank you, honey,’ I felt it was inappropriate and disrespectful,” Bullen said. “As a female, I felt I was being demeaned and made to feel uncomfortable as a female.”
According to Bullen, the citizens acted accordingly during the Dec. 16 meeting by addressing the board by the procedure in place.
“The people who spoke had followed the procedure that had been established by the board,” Bullen said. “I felt the conduct of our mayor was very unbecoming of any elected official to speak to the citizens that way.”
Bullen said she felt that Lynch’s actions merit more than an apology.
“No less than four citizens were the recipients of disrespectful, derogatory and demeaning verbal mistreatment by the mayor,” Bullen said. “This behavior is nothing short of appalling. The town belongs to the citizens. Human beings don’t speak to other human beings like that.”
• • •
According to Lynch, order must be maintained going forward. He refused to issue an apology, but did acknowledge that he could have handled the situation differently.
“I could’ve used a more parliamentarian approach instead of saying shut up,” Lynch said.
Lynch explained that he feels the confrontations come from the same group of individuals each meeting.
“It’s an election year, and there is a group trying to make me look bad. I can live with that, but to personally attack me or any of our board members like that, I’m not going to allow it,” Lynch said. “We are going to have order in our meetings.”
In regards to the exchange with McWhirter, Lynch explained that the language used in the meeting was unacceptable.
“I tried to explain the numbers that she presented and she argued back and forth with me and that’s when she told me to kiss her you-know-what and the first thought that came to my mind was, ‘it looks too much like your face,” Lynch said. “I don’t regret that, I really don’t. I’m not going to sit in a meeting and let people talk to me like that. Did I handle it parliamentarian like, probably not, but it was the first thing that came to my mind.”
In regards to the exchange with Bullen, Lynch said he believed that Bullen was out of order.
“At the end of the meeting with Kathy Bullen standing up and apologizing for me, she was out of order,” Lynch said. “These people that stirred this up were all out of order. For me it was all about trying to keep the meeting in order.”