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‘Where does the line get drawn?’

Posted on Thursday, September 21, 2023 at 9:00 am

New resident questions local bias

LACIE SILVA

Editor

During the County Commissioner meeting on August 28, community member Alexis Birch brought the issue of potential bias among board members to the forefront.

As a newcomer to the area, originally from New York, Birch discussed with long-time residents the area’s rapid growth and the need to address possible biases in decision-making processes. “Tennessee is growing leaps and bounds” she stated and acknowledged other newcomers from states like California and Illinois.

Birch continued, “This growth is not gonna stop.” She praised the area, emphasizing its proximity to major cities like Chattanooga, Nashville, and Atlanta, GA, as well as its accessibility via airports. Birch stressed that the area offers a wealth of interesting, fun, and beautiful attractions, making it an enticing place to live.

However, Birch raised concerns about potential biases among commissioners. She noted that the members of the board held employment outside of the committee and had deep generational roots in the area. Birch worried that personal connections within the community might influence the passing of items on the agenda.

To illustrate her point, Birch presented a hypothetical scenario. In this scenario, one commissioner’s grandson managed a restaurant in Chattanooga and was dating the granddaughter of another commissioner. The granddaughter expressed concerns about her boyfriend’s safety while driving on I-24, prompting her grandfather’s worry as well. Birch mentioned that if a restaurant like Chili’s wanted to open in Jasper, it could create a conflict of interest since Gouger’s law firm represented Chili’s.

“Where does the line get drawn?” Birch questioned the board. Chairwoman Linda Mason clarified that commissioners were expected to abstain from voting when conflicts of interest arose. However, Birch raised the issue of identifying these connections, to which Attorney William L. Gouger Jr. responded by explaining that all county officials were bound by an ethics policy that included a conflict of interest policy requiring the disclosure of conflicts, whether they materialized or not.

Commissioner Don Adkins emphasized the interconnected nature of a community where many residents had lived for generations, with relationships extending into business and various aspects of life. Mason provided examples from earlier in the meeting in which two commissioners who had appropriately abstained from voting due to conflicts of interest. “They are pretty good about abstaining when they need to,” Mason concluded.

The county commissioner meeting shed light on the importance of addressing potential biases to ensure fair and impartial decision-making in the face of Tennessee’s ongoing growth.