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Town of Unicoi mayor, alderman spar over agenda

By Brad Hicks

Town of Unicoi Alderman Roger Cooper’s allegation that Mayor Johnny Lynch prevented him from placing an item on the agenda of the town’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen led to the passage of a new policy during the Monday, Aug. 21, meeting of the panel.

Per this new policy, aldermen wishing to have an item placed on the agenda must make the request prior to the Tuesday before the BMA meets. Members of the public wishing to have an item placed on the board’s agenda may contact a member of the board who will then make the request on their behalf.

The discussion that led to the adoption of the new policy was initiated when Cooper said he had requested that a discussion about the town’s previously-passed Mountain Harvest Kitchen policy be placed on the agenda. Lynch denied that request, Cooper said.

This, Cooper said, led to a series of emails between him, Town Recorder Mike Housewright and Town Attorney Lois Shults-Davis. Cooper said he was advised the mayor controlled the agenda.

“I read the charter and didn’t take it that way,” Cooper said.

Cooper also said after discussing the matter with consultants from the Municipal Technical Advisory Service, he sent Shults-Davis emails to inquire whether the town’s charter allows the mayor to keep items off the agenda.

“Again, I did not get that answer,” Cooper said. “This is something that came up. I had no intentions of changing the kitchen policy. It’s way beyond that. It’s about our town government and do the people have a right to put things on the agenda. And it turned into a disaster.”

Lynch responded by stating a discussion regarding the Mountain Harvest Kitchen was already on the Aug. 21 agenda under the “Reports of Officers & Committees,” at which time Cooper could have brought up any discussion he wished to regarding the kitchen.

“We have gone for 22 years under this same system,” Lynch said. “We have never had a problem like we’re talking about until you come along and said this. Nobody has ever been turned down on putting anything on the agenda. The only time anyone’s ever been turned down on putting something on the agenda is if they were too late … The only time there’s ever been an issue over that is when someone was late asking for it and, at that time, you still could come in and amend the agenda. We’ve done that before. I have never turned anyone down.”

Shults-Davis was not present for Monday’s meeting, but Unicoi County General Sessions Court Judge David Shults acted in her stead. Prior to Monday’s meeting, Shults-Davis provided language read by Shults that, under the charter, the mayor could set the agenda for special-called meetings but she could find no rules in the charter beyond that. Shults also read several recommendations provided by Shults-Davis to address the issue. Shunts-Davis wrote the town could adopt a policy that would allow the mayor to set the BMA’s regular agenda, allow it to be set by the town recorder with or without the input of aldermen, or allow anyone to place an item on the agenda.

“Here’s the way we’ve always done it – the city recorder sets the agenda,” Lynch said. “Then, when he gets the agenda together, and we did this just the other day, we do it every time, we sit down before he advertises it and we go over it. He goes over it with me to approve it, to make sure we didn’t leave anything out. That’s what we’ve always done in the past.”

“We do need a policy and it needs to represent all of the people of the town, and the only way that can happen is to be open so that aldermen can ask for items to be put on the agenda,” Cooper said.

Alderwoman Kathy Bullen said the issue boiled down to whether a member of the BMA has the right to place an item on the agenda. While others on the board said this has not previously posed a problem, Bullen hinted at past difficulty in having items placed on the agenda.

“Practice has played out differently,” she said.

This led to a strong response from Lynch, who said he and other town officials were “tired of being attacked.”

“You’ve got me heated up, people. That’s what you like to do but listen to this – I’m tired of being accused of fraud.” he said. “…You sit here in these meetings and try to make the public think that we’re out here to take advantage of everyone. We are not here to do that. We have not done that. The record shows it. You have not been turned down for putting something on the agenda unless it was too late.”

A motion for the new policy was made by Vice-Mayor Doug Hopson and seconded by Cooper. It was approved unanimously.

• • •

In other business, the board approved the first reading of an ordinance to amend the town’s zoning regulations stipulating that soil stabilization occur before a certificate of occupancy is issued by the town’s building inspector.

Per the amendment, exposed areas must be stabilized by seeding and straying and/or sodding prior to the issuance of the certificate.

“In the event that exposed areas cannot be stabilized in the manner described due to weather or other circumstances, the property owner shall bond the work at a set rate of $0.10 per square foot on surface requiring stabilization,” the amendment states. “In such event, all stabilization shall be completed within 60 days or the bond will be called unless an extension is granted by the Building Inspector. The bond shall be released upon satisfactory inspection of stabilization work by the Building Inspector. If a certificate of occupancy is refused, the building inspector shall state such refusal in writing with the cause. No land or building hereafter erected or altered in this use, shall be used until such a certificate of occupancy has been granted.”

Housewright said the building inspectors of most municipalities engage in this practice already, but the Town of Unicoi’s inspector was concerned that currently zoning language was inadequate to cover the town in the event of a legal challenge.

The amendment would take effect upon approval of its second and final reading.