Tensions escalate between commissioners, audienceWritten by Becky Johnson
A member of the public was escorted from a Haywood County commissioners meeting Monday (June 15) by a deputy after getting into a verbal altercation with Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick.
Tension has been high at county meetings for the past two months as commissioners wrestled with a budget for the coming fiscal year. The recession has strapped the county, prompting a 1.7 cent property tax hike along with layoffs, furloughs, shortened work weeks and a reduction in benefits for county workers.
Commissioners have faced stiff opposition bordering on belligerence over the proposed property tax increase. So it didn’t take much to ignite the short fuse between commissioners and the public this week.
Commissioners were considering a request from Stephen King, the solid waste director, to lease two new pieces of heavy machinery for landfill operations. King had gotten the OK from commissioners several months ago to hunt for the best deal to replace a bulldozer and excavator that King says are on their last leg.
King found what he considered the best deal out there, but as he began discussing specifications for the equipment, Kenneth Henson piped up from the audience with questions about the undercarriage on one of the pieces. Henson, a grader who is intimately familiar with heavy machinery, challenged King’s knowledge of the equipment, engaging King with questions about the type of undercarriage.
Kirkpatrick told Henson that was enough.
“You don’t want to know?” Henson asked commissioners.
“I do, but I can’t let you talk out in a meeting that way. If I let you do it then I have to let everybody do it,” Kirkpatrick said.
“All I’m trying to do is save the county money,” Henson said.
“I understand,” Kirkpatrick said.
“No, you don’t,” Henson shot back.
“Shut up,” Kirkpatrick said, firmly pointing his finger at Henson.
As the situation seemed poised to escalate further, a sheriff’s deputy who was standing by the doors at the back of the room approached Henson and asked him to leave. As Henson rose, he chastised Kirkpatrick for his method of silencing a public outburst earlier in the meeting.
In that incident, Jonnie Cure, a leader of the group opposing the tax increase, had let out a guffaw while Commissioner Bill Upton was speaking. Those around her chided in with a chorus of “no’s” to express their disapproval at Upton’s comments. Upton had been explaining the difficult decision between even deeper cuts to county staff and services versus a tax increase. Upton said the county’s level of services, whether it’s teachers or law enforcement, is important to residents.
“The reason people move to Haywood County is the services we provide,” Upton said, prompting the outburst.
“Ms. Cure, I don’t believe I have ever interrupted you. In fact I have listened. We learn that in school,” responded Upton, the former superintendent of the school system.
Kirkpatrick stuck up for Upton and told the audience there would be no more outbursts or “talking out loud” during the meeting. Henson apparently resented the way Kirkpatrick had put his foot down with Cure.
“You talked to her like a dog, and you aren’t going to do me that way,” Henson said as he was escorted out.
Henson could be heard grumbling as he moved into the hallway, followed by the deputy saying, “You can’t do that in a public meeting.”
Kirkpatrick apologized to the audience before resuming the meeting.
“It has been a long six months. I apologize for that statement. It is unfortunate and all I can do is say ‘I’m sorry,’” Kirkpatrick told the audience after Henson was escorted out.
Henson remained outside the building talking with other opponents to the tax increase. He was still there nearly an hour later when the commissioners’ meeting concluded and Kirkpatrick emerged.
Kirkpatrick approached Henson, presumably to clear the air, and the two engaged in a 5-minute conversation on the sidewalk about what had transpired during the meeting. County Manager David Cotton stuck close to Kirkpatrick’s side. The deputy who was on hand for the meeting stood a few feet away as well.
Henson said he was legitimately trying to help by educating the county on the specifications for the excavating equipment they were poised to purchase. Henson said he was afraid the county was getting hoodwinked by the promise of special features on the equipment that are unnecessary.
Henson said the county could tap into the glut of used machinery on the market and easily modify it for landfill work. Instead, the county leased two new pieces of machinery billed as having a landfill-rated undercarriage at $20,000 a year for both.
Kirkpatrick said it was his responsibility to maintain order at meetings and he couldn’t allow audience members to pipe up in a confrontational manner throughout the course of the meeting. Kirkpatrick also said the county puts faith in the knowledge of their staff who researched the equipment needs and the best deal.
The two ended their conversation amicably.