As sweat settles on her cheeks after another long, tension-filled meeting, Charlotte Nash chooses her words carefully.
She understands the frustrations of the protesters who have shown up — and shouted out — at every commission meeting for nearly two months. She understands the outrage over the now-infamous Facebook post in which her colleague, Commissioner Tommy Hunter, called U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig.”
But, as a woman who’s spent her career working in county government, the disruption pains her.
“There’s a certain decorum that needs to be maintained in a public meeting,” says Nash, who, like each of her fellow commissioners, has previously denounced Hunter’s comments. “It’s hard. I’ll not make any bones about that. It’s hard to deal with situations where we’re not able to [maintain order].”
Protesters interrupting the most mundane proceedings, or coughing as Hunter tries to speak, or shouting at his fellow commissioners for not trying to force him out are the new normal for Gwinnett County. It’s a tough, distracting development for a body that, under Nash’s leadership, has pulled itself from the shadow of a corruption scandal and heretofore prided itself on orderly business.
And it’s one that’s begun to flirt with a more tangible disruption to county business.
‘Making a mockery’
Nash and the rest of Hunter’s fellow commissioners have, with varying levels of explicitness, admitted that the Hunter situation has been a distraction from everyday business. Nash in particular has had to spend far more time than usual answering emails and calls from constituents, time that takes away from dealing with other issues.
A few cancelled “informal business discussions” and long nights aside, the board says they’ve managed to handle their duties. Nash has repeatedly said the county’s staff has done a tremendous job helping keep the wheels turning.
At each board meeting since Hunter’s Jan. 14 Facebook post, protesters have coughed, held up signs or caused other disruptions while Hunter spoke. But a new strategy emerged at the commissioners’ most recent gathering.
On Tuesday night, Teddy Murphy, a vocal member of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party chose, instead of waiting for the open comment period, to speak during the separate public hearing for every development or rezoning proposed for Hunter’s district. Other protesters in the crowd snickered.
But the fourth or fifth time Murphy gave his spiel, venturing further from his original feigned concerns about traffic and closer to outright criticism of Hunter, District 4 Commissioner John Heard lashed out.
Heard warned Murphy that his “making a mockery” of the “serious business” at hand. Murphy responded by saying he was only there because there was “a racist on this Board of Commissioners.”
Snellville resident Brenda Engle Lee was at Tuesday’s meeting to speak against a rezoning proposal. She got a glimpse of what’s become Gwinnett’s new normal, and she didn’t like what she saw.
Engle Lee thinks the uproar has crossed a line, dragging out meetings and distracting from other issues that have real impact on people’s lives.
“I’m all for free speech and protest,” she said. “… There is a difference in making a statement via civil protest and heckling, bullying and frightening people who are trying to conduct business.”
Less than two months ago, the outburst would have been an unusual occurrence in Gwinnett County, where the board is generally buttoned-up and, at times, outright boring. When it happened Tuesday, the most surprising thing was that it had taken so long for someone to crack.
Georgia State Rep. Dewey McClain, a Democrat from Lawrenceville, has kept a close eye on his county’s government. He said the commotion hurts him, but believes there’s only one way for things to return to normal — Hunter’s removal.
“I think he’s doing a disservice to his other commissioners by staying there,” McClain said. “… In essence, the commissioners that are there are not going to be able to do any work. Because I can assure you, it’s growing instead of going away.”
‘The right thing for the county’
Murphy’s mode of attack was a direct response to Hunter’s latest strategy to quell the wave of protesters against him — participating in the bulk of board meetings but skipping out on the open public comment periods that typically close them.
Hunter’s spokesman, Seth Weathers, has said protests are “taking away from other individuals that have other concerns.”
“I think it’s the right thing for Tommy and his family, it’s the right thing for the county, and … people who have legitimate concerns and issues with county business, they can reach out to him anytime,” Weathers said last week, after the second time Hunter left a meeting early.
Whether it’s the right thing for the county is, thus far, debatable. The commissioner’s absence during public comment periods at the board’s last two meetings has seemed to energize the opposition and, at least in Murphy’s case, added a new twist to the protests.
Weathers said last week he hopes protesters won’t “disrupt official county business” at the board’s next meeting on Tuesday.
Nash, the board chairman, didn’t directly say that. But she is hoping for a little more order.
“I understand the frustration that people bring to us about this issue,” Nash said. “But again, we’ve got responsibilities about how we conduct business at the meeting as well.”
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