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Opponents of right of way ordinance pack BMA meeting

Matthew Lane • Nov 5, 2019 at 10:58 PM

KINGSPORT — One of the largest crowds ever to come before the Board of Mayor and Aldermen did so Tuesday night. Men and women of all ages, from all walks of life, were united under a common purpose: to protest the city’s decision to prohibit structures placed in the right of way.

Those who showed up at City Hall called the move a direct attack on the Ballad Health protest that’s been taking place outside Holston Valley Medical Center for nearly 190 days. Dani Cook, who has been spearheading the protest since May, said the city is weaponizing its ordinances and described the amendment as a “declaration of war on our peaceful protest.”

Many comments drew rounds of applause and emotions ran high at times during the two-and-a-half hour meeting. There were several outbursts, some back and forth between the protesters and elected officials, and at least two threats from Mayor Pat Shull to remove disruptive folks.

In the end, the BMA voted 4-2 to approve the amendment on first reading. Alderwoman Jennifer Adler and Alderman Darrell Duncan voted no. Prior to the vote, Adler made a motion to defer the amendment indefinitely. The motion failed for lack of a second.

The amendment now requires a second vote (most likely taking place in two weeks) and, if approved, will go into effect 10 days afterward. Violators could be fined $10 to $50 each day.

ABOUT THE AMENDMENT

What brought folks out in droves on Tuesday night was a proposed change to city code that will — for the most part — prohibit temporary or permanent structures placed on the public right of way. The amendment deals with encroachments, structures or objects.

City officials say the amendment is necessary since such structures have a detrimental effect on the aesthetics of the city, can cause damage to and hinder the maintenance of the right of way, and potentially endanger the safety of the public.

This amendment will directly impact the Ballad Health protest that has been taking place since May, where protesters have used a number of canopies for shelter, placed on the right of way, in the grassy area between the sidewalk and West Ravine Road.

COMMENTS FROM THE PUBLIC

Cook said on Monday that the timing of the measure is suspect and believes the case law cited in the amendment is not applicable to the protest. On Tuesday, her remarks before the board were a bit more pointed.

“You are weaponizing ordinances ... and this is a declaration of war on our peaceful protest,” Cook said. “Tonight is not just about Ballad Health or the peaceful protest. It’s about an attempt to disrupt how the citizens exercise their First Amendment rights.”

Last week city officials visited the protest site and gave a “courtesy notice” to Cook and the other protesters about the upcoming amendment. Cook said there’s nothing polite or civilized about the ordinance.

“Ordinances are meant to serve the public good and not function as a tool of special interests to suppress free speech,” Cook said.

Jason Moore said he was ashamed of the BMA. “This is not what the citizens want, but what Ballad wants. At some point you’ve got to work for Kingsport.”

Martha Simmons of Colonial Heights said the ordinance goes against our First Amendment rights. Crystal Regan said if the city passes this ordinance, she’s certain someone will file for injunctive relief in the courts.

“You’re trying to shut down the protest ... nothing more, nothing less,” said Crystal Moore. “They have a right to be there and a right to provide shelter from the elements.”

After 30 minutes of remarks, Shull closed this first round of public comments, which drew the ire of many in attendance.

HOW THE BMA VOTED

Shull said he strongly supports the amendment and that the measure does not preclude residents from protesting.

“I’ve pondered this ... and it became clear that by allowing obstructions in the right of way sets a bad precedent. Our mission is to maintain an orderly city,” Shull said.

Adler said she believes this amendment will have unintended consequences, noting that she has yet to hear compelling evidence that this right of way issue is not already addressed with current city codes.

“If what we do at this table gives an appearance to disadvantage a small subset of citizens, does it deserve a higher level of scrutiny?” Adler asked. “Exceptional care is required and is not something to proceed without caution.”

Prior to voting, Duncan said his vote was going to be “no,” with one reason being the impending probability of a lawsuit if the amendment were approved.

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