VITAL POLICY – OPINION – Citizen Standing to Participate in Government, A Primer on the Tennessee Constitution

Nothing says your opinion doesn’t count like shutting down citizen comment at public meetings. If citizens wish to speak their mind at county commission, school board, or any subcommittee meeting of local government, they should be able to comment on any public policy issue. When the framers of the Tennessee Constitution included Section 23 under Article I, Declaration of Rights, they intended for the governed to have standing to “instruct” their elected representatives. In fact, that section of our state constitution codifies four rights that are found in only two other state constitutions in the United States, Vermont, and Massachusetts being the other two.

Tennessee Constitution, Article I, Section 23

That the citizens have a right, in a peaceable manner, to assemble together for their common good, to instruct their representatives, and to apply to those invested with the powers of government for redress of grievances, or other proper purposes, by address of remonstrance.”

This section of our sacred state constitution is the reason that most governing bodies in the state of Tennessee choose to hold a special place for citizen input on their meeting agendas. Providing for citizen input by verbal address is the most efficient means for the governed to instruct their representatives and to vet ideas in a public forum.

The framers of our state constitution wanted citizens and elected officials to remember their role in governance. They made it clear that citizens hold the power. Tyranny ensues when either one loses sight of their responsibility or manipulates the process for their own agenda.

Citizen Input” should never be switched on (and off) for the convenience of public officials at public meetings.

Citizens of Oak Grove Speak Out

Concerning Their Recent Experience

at the Jefferson County Commission Special Called Meeting

All we want is for our elected officials to give their constituents the respect that they deserve and their time to hear their concerns.” – Kenneth Stratton

After waiting patiently during the budget meeting and completing forms to provide citizens comments, we watched the county commissioners set up their computers and get ready for the meeting. First on their agenda, they invited Mike by name to come up and speak, asked him to state his name and address. He was informed of his 3-minute rule, spoke his first sentence, then they lowered the dustpan and swept him up with the broom and tossed us all out.” – Becca Stratton

I would think when one chooses to run for public office, that they have a care and concern and a passion to serve their community and the constituents residing within. And therefore, that they would have a desire to welcome their voices. After our experience at the recent County Commissioners Special Called Meeting, where we were completely shut down from speaking, I question whether they feel their purpose is to serve their constituents.” – Carmen Lichty

I felt insignificant and disrespected like we had no business interrupting their meeting, and the comment made as we were leaving was “we’ll see you in January, with a laugh”. We thought our voice important and that the officials at this meeting were here to support the citizens of county, but obviously we were wrong.” – Linda Anthony

I fully respect the Rules of Procedure and will gladly remain silent when not allowed to speak. However, the manner in which this occurred sent a disquieting message to citizens about their ability to adequately communicate with their elected representatives. County Commissioners now have a wonderful opportunity to clarify this policy to protect and encourage citizen participation in the local government process.” – Mike Foley

After the shock of what had just happened at the Special Called Jeff County Commissioners meeting, we returned home, and learned that the Parliamentarian did NOT follow the Rules of Procedure. The Rules in fact did allow for citizens comments to be heard whether on the agenda or not. It appeared to me that the Parliamentarian was deliberately trying to shut down public comments.” – Mark Lichty

All public bodies and governing boards should include “citizen input” at meetings under a least-restrictive doctrine within established time limits and rules of procedure. No topic of citizen concern should ever be squashed or limited because the meeting is defined as a work session, voting meeting or special called meeting. Imposing such arbitrary infringements on citizen speech creates animosity with the public and limits the free flow of ideas that government desperately needs to solve problems.

David Seal is a retired Jefferson County educator, recognized artist, local businessman, 917 Society Volunteer, and current Chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party. He has also served Jefferson County as a County Commissioner and is a lobbyist for the people on issues such as eminent domain, property rights, education, and broadband accessibility on the state level.