GATLINBURG (WATE) – A group of wildfire survivors pushed back against a recent change in the rules for taking concerns to Gatlinburg city leaders at public meetings.
It’s been more than seven months since the disaster. In that time, people shared frustrations at city commission meetings. Some aren’t happy with city leaders’ handling of the fire and the aftermath. They’ve wanted answers and haven’t been satisfied with the responses.
On Independence Day, some Gatlinburg wildfire victims penned their own declaration. They wrote a letter addressed to Mayor Mike Werner.
“We have a lot of concerns for this county, the city. And we have questions that I feel need to be answered,” said Darlene Verito.
Verito believed city commissioners are making it difficult to get those answers. Survivors like Verito continued to share their stories and frustrations during public comment at city commission meetings. Originally, people could sign up to speak right before the meeting started but that changed two weeks ago.
“It impedes our rights of freedom of speech,” Verito said.
Gatlinburg city commissioners passed Resolution 939 which stated a person must now sign up to talk five days before the meeting. The individual must also state the subject that will be addressed. The speaker will have three minutes to talk and the board will also have the right to deny a request.
More online: Read Resolution 939 [PDF]
“Who deems whats moral, whats respectful and what’s disrespectful?” said Lauren Meier, another wildfire survivor.
Meier lost her home in the fire. She felt this resolution prevents survivors from sharing their stories.
“I think they should be more open to hearing what people have said,” she said.
Dozens signed the letter asking Mayor Werner to repeal the resolution. Verito said it is hard to move on without answers.
Mayor Werner said the meetings were not as productive as he would like and he hopes getting the comments days in advance will allow the commissioners to research and hopefully answer questions. He also notes these new rules follow the same format as Sevier County Commission meetings. Mayor Werner said some of these people have spoken at those meetings with no complaints.
These new rules will be applied for the next city commission meeting. That is scheduled for July 18.