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Noisy and determined opponents get their way with nuisance ordinance

Take note — members of the public with an agenda to push could learn a thing or two from the mass of Haywood County residents who came out repeatedly to protest the county’s proposed nuisance ordinance.

Commissioners voted unanimously at their Monday (April 6) meeting to indefinitely discontinue discussion of the nuisance ordinance in light of mass public opposition.

The nuisance ordinance seeks to crack down on junk on peoples’ property, and prohibits everything from outdoor storage of scrap metal to junked motor vehicles to non-maintained swimming pools. Though the ordinance aims to maintain public health, many county residents attacked it for infringing on their personal property rights.

The Monday meeting marked the third consecutive commissioners’ meeting that was overwhelmed by as many as 200 residents coming out to protest the nuisance ordinance — many of whom had never attended a governmental meeting in their life. The crowd was so large some were diverted into an overflow room to watch via closed-circuit television.

Residents missed work and other commitments in order to take part in the public outcry. Some offered apologies as they nervously stumbled over their public comments, explaining that public speaking was something they had little experience with.

The opposition even went so far as to form its own official group, called ‘We the People,” which attracted a crowd of 100 to its first meeting. Their organization was impressive.

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Eventually, residents opposing the ordinance got exactly what they wanted — commissioners killed the nuisance ordinance. It was a display of democracy in its truest form. Even commissioners seemed impressed.

“It is apparent by the number of people in this room that the process works,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger.

“I hope everyone has learned a lot about county government,” remarked Commissioner Skeeter Curtis.

The learning process was evident. People who had never plowed through a county ordinance read the nuisance ordinance front to back several times. Members of the opposition questioned how they could get access to information like minutes, and asked commissioners when and how meetings were scheduled.

The learning curve wasn’t all good. If anything, many members of the public learned most of all that they should pay more attention to what their government is doing.

“It really woke us up — it’s made us realize we can’t trust this government,” said Randy Burris on Monday. “It’s made us realize how quickly our freedoms can be took away from us, and it’s up to us to stand and defined it.”

If opponents of the ordinance stay true to their word, commissioners will have a new breed of watchdog looking out for county interests.

“You have awoken a giant that I hope will stay with the decision that they have made to be attentive to their government for a change, and to watch what’s going on with this county,” said Rusty McLean on Monday.

Of course, it is not the first time mass crowds have turned out in protest at commissioner meetings with a sustained presence, only to have the audience thin out when the issue at hand was concluded. In the past 10 years, commissioners saw repeated standing-room-only crowds on two other occasions. One surrounded construction of the justice center, with debates centering on the price tag and location. Another heated and extended controversy broke out over a proposed maximum security state prison in the county. After both died down, the audience at commissioner meetings returned to nothing more than county staff and reporters.

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