I attended the Hamblen County Commission meeting on October 21, 2021. I posted about it on the HCDP Facebook page and did a little running commentary while I was there. I decided to address at public forum a couple of resolutions they were voting on. The first was a resolution to “urge” Tennessee’s elected leaders to oppose the Federally proposed vaccine mandate. The second resolution was about adoption of Hamblen County’s redistricting plan. I’ll put the prepared remarks I had below in this post. My actual remarks were pretty much the same, although I may have ad libbed a little when I was up at the lectern.
On the first resolution, one of the Commissioners (NeSmith) spoke against the resolution. He said county and state aren’t doing anything about a federal mandate and asked why they were spending time on the resolution. He said he was personally against mandates. No other discussion took place. Commissioner NeSmith abstained from voting and the rest of the Commissioners voted yes. Two other public forum participants addressed this resolution. They were both against the mandate and spoke highly of the idea of “natural immunity.” One of the speakers went so far as to say that the vaccines are not effective.
On the second resolution, Jeff Gardner, Administrator of Elections, gave the Commissioners a run down of the proposed map. Mr. Gardner was the Chair of the Redistricting Committee which met for less than 30 minutes in September to approve the recommended map. You can read my remarks below, but I brought up with them the fact that there was little notice of the Redistricting Committee meeting taking place, it was a cursory meeting, they considered only one proposed map, and there was no consideration of whether the lines should be drawn in such a way to give the non-white minority in Hamblen County a chance to elect a non-white minority representative.
Only one Commissioner asked a question (I don’t remember which one), but it seemed to be a question designed to let Mr. Gardner explain a little about the proposed map. My ears perked up when I heard Mr. Gardner explain that they put the map together with the 3 criteria given to them by the state. The district populations need to be within +/- 5% of the median number, the districts need to be contiguous, and they have to ensure minority representation as required under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Mr. Gardner explained that the map met all of these criteria. The vote was 14-0 in favor.
So, I had to do a double take when Mr. Gardner brought up the minority representation criterion. I was the only member of the public at the September meeting and I don’t remember any discussion of minority representation. They followed along with the slides (which were included in the Commission meeting packet). All of the discussion was about the +/- 5% issue. I’ve double checked the slides from the meeting and they don’t make any mention of how the minority representation criterion was considered or met.
Now, it may be that all the criteria were met. But how is a member of the public supposed to know this? The Redistricting Committee meeting was poorly noticed, cursory in nature and seemed to be formed to rubber stamp the one proposed map they considered.
As it turns out, the Election Commission meets at 4 p.m., right before the County Commission, on the 3rd Thursday of the month. I guess I’ll have to wait til next month to ask those questions at public forum at the Election Commission. Expect an update on this issue after that.
PREPARED REMARKS FOR PUBLIC FORUM AT THE HAMBLEN COUNTY COMMISSION MEETING – OCTOBER 21, 2021 (5 minutes alloted)
Resolution 21-20 – to adopt the reapportionment/redistricting plan for Hamblen County
I have 3 points I’d like to make with regard to this redistricting plan.
- First, it seems like there wasn’t a lot of effort put in to getting the word out about the redistricting committee meeting. Admittedly, I’m new to Morristown. Been here since May. But, by the same token, I’m pretty dialed into the local political scene. Working on it anyway. And I had to have someone call me day of the meeting to let me know it would be taking place. As it happened, I was the only member of the public in attendance at the meeting. I think for a meeting that will affect voter districts for the next 10 years, you can and should do better.
- The meeting lasted less than 30 minutes. It felt like there was behind the scenes coordination on selection of the Chair and vice chair of the committee. There was only 1 redistricting plan presented. It took 15-20 minutes to run through the slides and then it was done. It feels like more of this process should have been handled in front of the public, rather than behind the scenes. Since I moved here from Knox County, I still pay attention to local government there. I see how they’ve been handling their redistricting process. They have had several public meetings, floated several proposed maps and have had substantive discussion. Here there was 1 meeting, 30 minutes long and 1 map. Sure Knox County is larger than Hamblen County. But that doesn’t mean we should take this process any less seriously.
- The stated goal of the one map that was considered was to minimize the number of voters that had to switch districts in order to balance the 14 districts out. And, sure, that’s a fine goal. But Hamblen County’s population from the 2020 census is about 65000. When I look up demographic data for the county, I find numbers that show the non-white minority population anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of the county. That’s anywhere from 10 to 16 thousand residents of Hamblen County. Instead of 15 to 25 percent of Hamblen County and Morristowns elected leaders being members of the non-white minority, there is zero percent. Now, maybe the answer to this question is that you just don’t have to take that into account. Or maybe the answer is that keeping the number of voters having to change districts down is more important than trying to give the non-white minority of voters a chance to elect a non-white minority representative. But there was no public consideration of that question. Instead we got a cursory 30 minute meeting to rubber stamp a seemingly pre-approved redistricting plan, which will now be rubber stamped by County Commission. Or maybe I’m wrong and you’ll actually give some substantive discussion to this resolution. I hope that’s the case.
Resolution 21-19 –
This is a ridiculous politically motivated resolution.
- The resolution is to “urge” Tennessee’s elected leaders to oppose the federally proposed vaccine mandate.
- I dare say that each of you has the contact information in your phones for many of Tennessee’s elected leaders. You could just call them up and urge them. Instead, you’ve taken the people’s time to come up with this toothless resolution that, at the end of the day, amounts to no more than political grandstanding. A quick google search showed me that Hamblen isn’t the first county to have gone down this overtly political path. I don’t know if this originated with the wrestler Mayor in Knox county or with some statewide or nationwide organization that is using county commissions for their own agenda. But I think it’s important to point out that this isn’t something organic to Hamblen County, but, instead, is something where you are just following along with someone else’s agenda.
- I’d like to see the commissioners act as the leaders of Hamblen County that you were elected to be, rather than just playing a part in some bigger scheme that is fueling someone else’s political ambitions.
- I’d like to see you vote this resolution down. You’ve already wasted the people’s time in committee and here at this meeting by coming this far.
- And I’d like to see some explanation for how this resolution has any bearing on the actual business of Hamblen County or makes a difference to ordinary residents of Hamblen County.
- I mean, if your opinions about vaccines are so strong that you feel the need to use County Commission time to play this particular political game, I think we’d all love to hear whether each of you has been vaccinated and, if so, why you don’t think that’s inconsistent with voting for this resolution.
- Finally, I follow these pandemic related issues pretty closely. One criticism I’ve heard more than once from Anti-maskers is that they don’t want to be sheep. We that believe in using masks and mask mandates are sheep and they’re not. But in the same vein, I ask you – if you’re taking Hamblen County down this path of adopting a resolution like this just because of a bunch of other Republican controlled county commissions have done so, doesn’t that make you, and by extension the county as a whole, just another sheep?