GATLINBURG, Tenn. (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. People have been sharing their frustrations at city commission meetings. Some are unhappy with how city leaders handled the fire and the aftermath. They’ve been asking for answers and are not satisfied with the responses.
On Independence Day, 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, a wildfire survivor.
Verito believes city commissioners are making it difficult to get those answers. Until recently, anyone could sign up to speak right before a commission meeting. But the rules changed two weeks ago.
“It impedes our rights of freedom of speech,” Verito said.
Gatlinburg city commissioners passed Resolution 939 which says a person must now sign up to talk five days before the meeting. Speakers must also state the subject that will be addressed. The speaker will have three minutes to talk and the board will have the right to deny a request.
“Who deems what’s moral, what’s respectful and what’s disrespectful?” asked Lauren Meier, another wildfire survivor.
Meier lost her home in the fire. She believes the 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 five days in advance will allow the commissioners to research and answer questions. He also says the new rules follow the same format as Sevier County Commission meetings, adding that some of the same people have spoken at those meetings with no complaints.
The new speaker rules will be enacted for the next city commission meeting, scheduled for July 18.