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Judge executive candidate’s ordinance proposal sparks spirited discussion

Judge Executive Dean Watts reviews a draft ordinance handed him prior to the start of Tuesday’s Nelson Fiscal Court meeting by Republican judge executive candidate Don Thrasher, right.

 

By JIM BROOKS
Nelson County Gazette / WBRT Radio

Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018 — Don Thrasher, the Republican candidate for Nelson County Judge Executive, sparked a spirited discussion at Tuesday’s Nelson Fiscal Court meeting after he distributed a proposed ordinance dealing with citizen participation and transparency.

If approved, Thrasher’s proposal would move fiscal court meetings from their usual 9 a.m,. time to 7 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of each month. Additionally, one meeting per quarter would be held on a Saturday.

Thrasher said the goal is to allow greater public attendance and participation at fiscal court meetings by making them more accessible.

Don Thrasher discusses his propose ordinance addressing public participation and transparency before Nelson Fiscal Court Tuesday morning.

Judge Executive Dean Watts told Thrasher that fiscal court tried night meetings several years ago and the public participation was less in the evenings than at the current 9 a.m. meeting time.

“I gave it a shot, but I’m not going back there as long as I’m judge,” he said.

Tuesday’s fiscal court meeting was crowded, but that was due to the Woodlawn Springs zoning matter, Watts explained. Because the court meeting was not a public hearing, the audience was not allowed to ask questions or make statements, he explained.

Speaking at the meetings was not the point he was trying to make, Thrasher explained. It was simply to give the public a more convenient opportunity to see county government in action.

The proposal went on to suggest what Thrasher said was an “enhancement” to the state’s Open Meetings Act. The measure would prohibit the magistrates from discussing county business any time outside the fiscal court meeting room.

Thrasher said if Watts talks by phone to two or three magistrates in a row, that creates a “quorum in series,” which could violate the Open Meetings Act by allowing county business to take place outside the public’s view.

Watts disagreed and defended his right to talk to the magistrates individually.

“I have the right as judge to educate [the magistrates] on a particular issue,” he said.

Thrasher pointed to the court’s decision earlier in the meeting to approve the Woodlawn Springs zoning change as possible proof of discussions taking place outside the public’s view — a statement that drew disagreement from several court members.

When the matter came up on the zoning change, there was no discussion among the magistrates, Thrasher said. Magistrate Sam Hutchins made a motion to approve the change; Magistrate Jeff Lear seconded the motion; and the court approved.

Hutchins told Thrasher the magistrates had the opportunity to thoroughly review the evidence and testimony that was part of the planning commission’s public hearing. The court’s only three choices were to approve, deny, or vote to hold a public hearing, Hutchins explained.

“If there’s no discussion, how can they sit here and all agree on something?” Thrasher asked. Without the magistrate’s discussion, how does the public know the magistrates’ reasoning for their conclusions?

“Why are you agreeing to this?” he asked the magistrates about their “yes” votes. “We have no idea why you came to these conclusions you just came to.”

Nelson County Attorney Matthew Hite said that he has instructed the magistrates they couldn’t talk to constituents about the Woodlawn Springs issue. He said he told them they couldn’t even talk to one another about the matter.

“If they hear evidence that’s not contained [in the original testimony], that’s polluted the entire process,” he told Thrasher.

Thrasher suggested the magistrate’s discussions either were not taking place, or were taking place behind closed doors.

“There’s a reason there was no discussion here today,” he said. “That’s just my take on it.”

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