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Commissioners quietly opt not to rein in protestors

The ordinance was discussed and drafted; Jackson County’s legal counsel had reviewed it; and it had the stamp of approval from the county manager.

Once it got passed, the county would be able to corral and rein in protestors.

The commissioners were poised to vote on the “Public Assembly” ordinance at its meeting Monday meeting. But it seems they got cold feet.

Impromptu speeches by two residents in the public comment period might be what derailed the ordinance. It had garnered virtually no public discourse otherwise, despite one or two of the county commissioners questioning whether it was truly needed.

The ordinance would have required any group of 10 or more to get a permit from the county manager to assemble on county property. They would also be restricted to grassy areas and barred from sidewalks and building entrances. It included other guidelines about signs and allowable forms of demonstration as well.

One of the speakers took issue with needing a permit to protest.

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“All it is, is a roadblock in your way,” said Clark Lipkin a local surveyor who also sits on the county’s planning board. “The burden shouldn’t be on the public to prove why they deserve the right to protest but rather on the government to prove why they shouldn’t.”

Another issue was the proposal to limit protests to grassy areas only. The fountain at the base of the old courthouse in Sylva is a popular site for protest and rallies, but it is not grassy.

Another speaker against the protest ordinance said she had come to the county meeting expecting to be just one of a hundred people in opposition of the ordinance, so Elizabeth Stanton said she hadn’t prepared a speech.

But when she found only one other ally willing to speak out, she stepped up to the podium.

“We’re citizens; we have a right,” Stanton said. “You have a duty to listen to us, to see us, to be glad we are coming to tell you something, not to try to make us not be seen.”

She said many other people in the community were concerned about the ordinance but had other obligations the night of the meeting such as soccer games and writing a paper.

“But they do care,” Stanton said. “And they will vote.”

Later during the meeting, when the ordinance was put before the commissioners for a vote, the room fell silent. No commissioner made the motion to bring it to a vote.

“If I have no motion… moving along,” said Chairman Jack Debnam.

After the meeting, Debnam said it was good for the commissioners to hear from the public before taking a vote but didn’t rule out revising the ordinance and bringing it before the commissioners again.

“If the people are concerned about it,” Debnam said, “maybe we do need to take another look at it. That’s what the public hearing is for.”

County Manager Chuck Wooten had first proffered the idea of a protest ordinance to commissioners. The idea was prompted following a sit-in in the lobby of the Jackson Sheriff’s Office weeks earlier, in which immigrant rights activists on their way to the Democratic Convention in Charlotte had clogged the lobby and hallway, beating on drums and demanding to see Sheriff Jimmy Ashe.

Ashe has come under fire in the immigrant community for road checkpoints that allegedly targeted communities where illegal immigrants live.

Shortly after the demonstration, the ordinance was drafted based on one recently passed in Catawba County. The ordinance passed through at least one county commissioner work session and awaited a final vote by commissioners where it ultimately fell out of favor.

Wooten had said some sort of measure was needed to maintain order when protestors blocked public access to the county buildings or right of ways.

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