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Wildfire victims want changes in Gatlinburg

(PHOTO: WBIR)

A group of wildfire victims from both Gatlinburg and Sevier County held a news conference on Tuesday to announce their collective "We The People" letter addressed to Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner and the board of Commissioners.

Wildfire survivors and concerned citizens chose Patriot Park in Pigeon Forge as a symbolic location to spread their message on the Fourth of July.

Wildfire survivor Darlene Verito read the letter aloud, which demands the repeal of Resolution Number 939. On June 20, 2017, the Gatlinburg Board of Commissioners passed the resolution that would change the rights of speakers in the public comment section of their meetings. Mayor Mike Werner said the change would make future meetings more "positive and productive."

Verito and others disagree, saying the new rules restrict their speech.

"If you're going to bang your gavel and tell us to be quiet and sit down that's a major concern. People want to feel safe here," Verito said. "We're just asking and willing to help out with any changes that need to be made, but the fact that they just shut us up? It's not right."

The group said they feel their questions and concerns are being ignored by the city in the wake of the wildfires.

"The response I would like from the city is some compassion. To see that they really are concerned for the residents and tourists, because their actions thus far shows they are not concerned at all," Verito said.

Before the change, citizens could enter their name and topic at the beginning of the meeting. The new resolution requires speakers to submit their questions, comments, or concerns in writing to the city manager no less than five days before the scheduled meeting. The speaker must also state the subject they want to address and limit their comments to that topic.

At the meeting, each speaker is allowed three minutes, which is the same rule as before, and if they stray from their subject, the Mayor will call them out of order. Any person can be denied the option to speak with a majority vote from the Board.

Resolution No. 939 also states individuals will not be allowed to "verbally attack officials or other individual."

Many other municipal meetings, such as the Sevier County Commission, have long adhered to similar rules on public comment time and preparation.

At the same meeting where commissioner's passed the new resolution, Hurricane Katrina and Gatlinburg wildfire survivor Genie Brabham questioned Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner and city manager Cindy Cameron Ogle during the public comments portion. Brabham, 61, lost her home and two cats in the Chalet Village North community. She objected to Mayor Werner's comments given in a televised interview, stating "the disaster changed our lives for the better."

While Brabham was speaking, Mayor Werner interrupted, "Well, Ms. Brabham, I'm not going to sit here and have you--" and Brabham interrupted stating, "Did you hear? I said I lost everything." Werner continued his injection, "--do that" and slammed his gavel.

The exchange between Brabham and Mayor Warner was recorded and posted to social media. Since, many have expressed concern for Gatlinburg's new resolution. Some have called it an "intentional limitation of an individual's free speech rights."

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