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Athens Council discusses term limits on its own members

The Athens City Council recently discussed the possibility of limiting the maximum continuous tenure of its own members.

Council Member John Coker reintroduced the topic at last month’s study session after briefly mentioning it earlier this year at the Council’s annual Strategic Summit.

Coker asked his fellow members to consider imposing a limit on Council seats to three four-year terms — a 12-year maximum. Following their departure, Council members could then opt to run for another term during the next election cycle two years later. This mirrors recent Council action where it limited many of its appointed committee members to 12 consecutive years of service and a two-year hiatus before becoming eligible to serve another term.

Vice Mayor Bo Perkinson did not necessarily oppose the idea, but did draw a distinction between Council seats and committee appointments.

“There’s a big difference, in my judgment, between somebody being elected to a position and having a term limit on that as opposed to somebody being appointed by the Council to a certain position,” said Perkinson. “I put a pretty large differentiation between those two.”

“Would you be willing to put it on the ballot in November and let the people decide,” asked Coker in response.

Perkinson said the Council must first weigh the “pros and cons” of such a measure. Coker said term limits would better facilitate new members joining the Council.

“We do have term limits called elections,” said Mayor Chuck Burris, who noted that he would favor term limits for federal lawmakers and, like Perkinson, is not necessarily opposed to them at the city level.

Coker added that city term limits might also encourage voters to do more research into candidates and not vote based solely on party affiliation or name recognition.

Implementing term limits would require a change to the city charter that must be approved by the state legislature.

“We could either elect to put it on the ballot and see what the people say or we could just go ahead and voluntarily say, ‘Alright, we’re going to change the charter for term limits,’” said Coker.

Burris said he is concerned that term limits might cause the Council to lose experienced members. Coker countered that experienced Council members could just as easily lose their seat in an election.

“Term limits would not create that problem,” said Coker.

City Manager C. Seth Sumner relayed data he obtained from the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) regarding term limits. Of the 16 Tennessee municipal governments polled that have a council/manager form of government, only one has existing term limits.

Coker asked that this topic be further discussed at a future Council study session, the next of which is on Monday at 5:45 p.m.

Members of community gather in protest of George Floyd killing

Citizens, police officers and public officials gathered for a community prayer gathering Wednesday in Downtown Athens, continuing the protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd by a police officer last week.

The event, which had close to 200 people in attendance, opened up with numerous participants making the walk from the Market Park Pavilion to the McMinn County Courthouse, while chanting phrases such as “Mama, I can’t breathe” and “No justice, no peace.”

The organizer of the event, Sheina Bradley, then spoke and noted that she was seeking a “focus on unity, peace and justice” with the rally and urged people to “stand as a community.”

After the Pledge of Allegiance and a reading of Natasha Trethewey’s poem, “Myth,” a citizen stood and read off names of black citizens killed by police officers. The names included: Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and Floyd.

“We’re tired. Tired, tired, tired,” she said. “Tired of dying, tired of trying to convince you that our black lives matter, tired of making hashtags.”

Rev. Larry Saunders then led those in attendance in a prayer, asking God to help those who struggle with the sin of racism and prejudice.

“We lift every voice tonight, from sea to shining sea, from every corner of the earth,” Saunders prayed. “We ask You to move by the power of the Spirit according to Your word. Move in the hearts of every individual. Cover our police officers; our sheriff; our EMTs; cover every first responder; cover the citizens that when they’re sitting at home that they don’t have to worry about … being killed; cover our citizens that when they are pulled over, they aren’t dragged out of their cars and a knee put on their neck so they cannot breathe.”

He also prayed for unity in the community and the country at large.

“Cause the officer to realize that even as he should make it home, the citizen should make it home. Cause the citizen to realize that if he has the right to go home to see his wife and children, the officer should have the same privilege,” he prayed. “Call us to come together and be brothers and sisters. No color. What matters is the content of our heart.”

Among those who spoke were also several public officials, including McMinn County Mayor John Gentry, McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy and Athens Police Chief Cliff Couch.

Gentry noted that his mother was recently in the hospital for surgery.

“The team was phenomenal, the doctor was exceptional and the outcome was perfection,” he said, noting that he found out later that the surgeon was a member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. “The thought of that black man — highly trained, highly skilled, possessing healing in his hands — feeling concern for his safety or the safety of his family when he left work sickens me.”

The mayor added that there is suffering across the nation at this moment.

“Pain is very present right now in the heart of the nation,” Gentry said. “I’ve heard pain in the voices of friends, quite frankly, I didn’t know was ever there.”

He then called for “a community that doesn’t merely accept one another, but can truly appreciate one another. Accepting one another leads to peace, appreciating one another leads to prosperity.”

Guy talked to those in attendance about love being “the greatest quality a person can have.”

“That is one thing we so struggle with,” he said. “So many people are hurting. We run into people all the time who are hurting.”

He added that “there’s no room in professional law enforcement for” racism and prejudice.

Couch added to Guy’s thoughts, noting that he has paid a lot of attention to all the highly-publicized police incidents involving black people.

“I study them extensively so that I could do everything I could to make sure our town is an exception, that something like that doesn’t happen in Athens,” he said. “Your police chief, your police department, we’re here because we care about you, we’re here because we hate the idea that anyone doesn’t look at this uniform and see someone they should look to as a guardian and peacemaker.”

This is the second in a series of events put together largely because of the killing of Floyd.

Several young people gathered at the courthouse Monday to protest and on Saturday June 11, the City of Athens will host the “Conversation on Race and Community Event” at 5 p.m. at Cook Park.

Alleged possession, attempt to sell heroin, meth leads to jail time

Two men were arrested on May 29 for the alleged possession of drugs — including heroin — intended for resale.

On that day, McMinn County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Kevin Gray noticed an orange Jeep Wrangler with a headlight out traveling on County Road 804 shortly after midnight.

According to the report, Gray attempted to stop the vehicle around the Cog Hill Church area when he noticed the driver and passenger allegedly moving around frantically after he turned on his vehicle’s blue lights.

He reported the vehicle came to a stop twice before pulling over again.

Gray believed the occupants of the vehicle may have been trying to hide something due to their erratic movements and asked both the driver and passenger to exit the vehicle after they had come to a complete stop.

The driver — identified as Kalob Dakota Hall, 25, of Madisonville — reportedly gave the officer permission to search the vehicle after he and his passenger — identified as James Williams, 49, of Etowah — exited it.

While searching the vehicle, Gray reportedly noticed a small compartment that appeared to have been removed several times under the radio.

Inside of the compartment, allegedly, was a large bag of a brownish powder substance that Gray suspected to be heroin. He also reported that another bag was found within the same compartment that contained three smaller bags of a clear, crystal-like substance believed to be methamphetamine.

Another discovery allegedly made while investigating the vehicle was $115 in loose bills near the center console.

Upon these discoveries, both the driver and his passenger were detained for further investigation.

Hall and Williams were questioned about the narcotics found in the vehicle, however they both reportedly claimed that they had no idea how those items got into the vehicle and that the items did not belong to them.

Both Hall and Williams were taken into custody and transported to the McMinn County Justice Center.

Gray reportedly discovered that the vehicle was not registered to either of the arrestees and had it towed from the scene by Benton’s Wrecker Services.

The suspected narcotics and currency were reportedly seized to be logged into evidence.

An agent with the 10th Judicial Drug Task Force was then called to the scene to investigate the seized material with his agency’s TruNarc scanner.

The three small baggies with a crystal substance reportedly weighed around one gram and was scanned positive to be methamphetamine.

The large bag containing what is believed to be heroin weighed around 7.2 grams with the results still pending.

Both Hall and Williams were charged with possession of Schedule I drugs for resale and possession of Schedule II drugs for resale.

Athens resident Jennifer Hardison spotted this deer on the Eureka Trail while she was out for a walk on Memorial Day.

Couch 'encouraged' by youth turnout at Monday protest

As protests continue nationwide and in the region, Athens Police Chief Cliff Couch shared his thoughts on the situation.

“It makes me cringe every time I see the video of George Floyd being murdered. My entire career has revolved around building law enforcement agencies that provide a high level of professionalism to citizens,” Couch said. “The officer who callously crushed a helpless man in handcuffs basically spit on everything that I and countless other law enforcement professionals strive to stand for. We’re supposed to be the good guys.”

Couch said the protests are understandable, given the killing of Floyd.

“Watching a man in uniform do something so horrible is the worst kind of irony. I’m furious, so I understand why so many others are mad too,” he said. “We need to all put that energy into focused, specific goals that move us toward a day where this type of thing doesn’t happen.”

However, he stressed that rioting and violence are not the answer.

“There are many different things that may move us in the right direction, but riots aren’t one of them. I suspect that any legitimate protesters who are pouring their souls into building a better world are probably heartbroken at the way some people have chosen to hijack their cause,” he explained. “We must remember that there is a difference between legitimate protest and self-serving exploitation and we have to act accordingly.”

There have been two protests held in Athens since the killing of Floyd — one Monday night and another Wednesday, both at the McMinn County Courthouse — and both of them have been peaceful.

Couch stated that he was very impressed by the protest that happened Monday night at the courthouse in Downtown Athens.

“Most of the participants were high-schoolers. I was encouraged to see the youth of our community take such an interest in social issues and things that matter,” he said. “I also appreciated the fact that they were mostly respectful and well behaved. I hope that they’ll follow through with whatever passion they feel for this issue by formulating specific goals, researching the issues and ultimately being involved in their government. Communities get the government they deserve and the quality of Athens’ future will be determined by just how involved this generation is willing to be in their government.”

He added he is taking extra precautions to allow citizens to utilize free speech without fear of things turning violent.

“I’ve spent my entire adult life as either a U.S. Marine or a law enforcement officer. I’ve sacrificed a great deal to ensure that people have to right to free speech. You can’t have a free society without free speech,” he said. “The Athens Police Department will do everything it can to ensure that every citizen can exercise that right. We’re all working a ton of overtime right now to help make sure that these events can take place safely and without fear of reprisal. You can expect us to keep doing so. Citizens who want to exercise their right to free speech here will find that we’ll work with them in whatever way we possibly can.”

He stated that his officers will stop any potential harm or violence should the worst case scenario happen.

“There is no excuse for opportunists to exploit the memory of George Floyd or disgrace the efforts of legitimate protesters as they pursue their own selfish goals. Legitimate protest and looting are two very different things,” he explained. “The first and foremost role of government is to ensure safety for its citizens. If anyone tries to endanger that or harm our citizens, the APD will be just as assertive about stopping them as we are about protecting free speech.”

He hopes the younger citizens who are actively voicing their concerns will learn from this situation and utilize it to proactively seek change in the future.

“I’ve been a police chief for nearly 10 years and I’ve been to countless city council meetings. One of the greatest disappointments I’ve had is realizing just how few people take the time to be involved in their government,” he said. “When people aren’t involved, it leaves a vacuum that’s easily misused. If the students I saw (Monday) night want change of any type, they have to realize it takes a lot more than going to a single demonstration on a Monday night. It takes a lot of hard, thankless work to have a quality government that truly serves its people.”

Couch emphasized that there’s more to creating change than simply attending protests.

“Speaking out is an important part of the process, but it’s not the only part. I hope the passion we’re seeing from this translates into more people running for office, learning about the needs of their community and taking action,” he said. “Protest is just the start of any real change. If Americans want a better government, they’ll have to step down out of the spectator stands and enter the arena of change. That can take a lot of forms. There are countless ways and places that people can get involved in their government and see change, but I’d love nothing more than to see young people who are concerned about law enforcement in America step forward and don a badge; to be the change they want to see.”

Couch added that creating change starts at home, in small towns.

“Several years ago, in the wake of the unrest that followed Ferguson, I felt incredibly helpless. Like that situation, it’s a huge issue that’s far beyond my ability to fix. The conclusion I finally came to is that although I can’t change the world, I can change people’s worlds,” he noted. “The wonderful thing about small towns is they’re small enough for each of us to make a difference. Those of us in Athens can’t fix the discord that’s sweeping through our country, but we can make sure that Athens is the exception. Change starts locally.”