Work session hears pitches on grave digging, lobbying

Two substantive issues occupied much of the Blount County Commission’s work session last week as the body listened to lengthy petitions.

Attorney Ronnie Blackwood of Oneonta made the first presentation, representing Randall (Keith) Evans, a local contractor who provides grave-digging services in the county. The request was for the commission to discontinue its policy of digging graves free of charge to county citizens.

Bill Burns, who identified himself as an attorney and registered lobbyist residing in Remlap, presented the second petition, requesting commissioners to consider hiring a lobbyist, which he referred to as an “external affairs manager” or “government relations director,” to represent the interests of the county commission before state executive and legislative bodies in Montgomery.

Blackwood summarized reasons for challenging the county grave-digging policy as follows:

The county commission is using taxpayer money to compete directly with private businesses that provide employment, pay taxes, and support the local economy.

As a general rule, it is illegal for the county to use county equipment on private property. In the case of grave digging, the local bill passed by the Legislature in the 1970s giving the county the authority to do so is arguably unconsititutional.

The county assumes a considerable liability by digging graves, running the risk of damaging other graves or gravestones and incurring substantial legal claims for such damages.

Some cemeteries have banned the county from digging graves because equipment of the size used causes dam-

See SESSION, pg A2 age to the cemetery landscape that is not always satisfactorily repaired. Private contractors use smaller equipment and do a better job of cleanup and lawn repair.

The county incurs substantial costs by providing the service that could be more usefully applied to other needs such as road repair. County-wide cost estimates range from $40,000 to $80,000 annually.

Blackwood told commissioners he was bringing the matter to their attention as a courtesy, in the hope that litigation would not be necessary to resolve the matter.

Following the presentation, Commission Chairman David Standridge asked county attorney Tom Prickett to review the relevant law on the matter, specifically researching attorney general opinions on the provision of grave-digging services by counties. He suggested requesting an attorney general opinion on the constitutional status of Blount County’s local legislation passed to authorize the activity.

Prickett agreed, adding that another relevant inquiry would be whether the county’s liability insurer will cover any claims that might arise in the course of providing the grave-digging service for citizens. He said he would also check on that.

District 4 Commissioner Waymon Pitts commented that the service is one that Blount County citizens want and have come to expect. “Just so you’ll know my position on it, it’s a service I’ll continue to provide until a judge tells me I can’t do it any more,” he said.

Standridge said he feels the county should continue to provide the grave-digging service as long as it can do so legally. If it can’t do so legally and without incurring substantial liability, it might be necessary to discontinue the service, he said. To lobby or not to lobby

Burns said he is a registered lobbyist, adding that lobbying is not in principle an unethical activity. It allows citizens to redress grievances, and as such is a right guaranteed by the Constitution, he said. Clients he represents include the American Heart Association and public schools, for whom he lobbied for upgrading physical education standards in secondary schools.

Burns said the job of government relations director should be seen as a revenue-generating position for the county and that it should include duties such as liaison with state and federal funding sources, relations with other county municipalities, news media relations, and competitive grant writing.

In a handout provided to commissioners, he emphasized the legislative component of the job, noting that even well-intentioned legislation can lead to unanticipated consequences, highlighting the “watchdog” benefit such a position could provide for the county.

“The biggest challenge,” he said, referring to political activity in general, “is not aiming too high and failing, but aiming too low and succeeding.”

Standridge said the commission has not considered hiring a lobbyist, and did not request the presentation. Special work session

Following discussion of routine items for inclusion on the business meeting agenda, Pitts said he would like to schedule a special work session to deal specifically with matters related to subdivision regulations and their enforcement. It was agreed to determine a date in February when the full commission could devote as long as needed to a comprehensive discussion of developers’ responsibility for meeting road construction specifications and procedures for establishing and enforcing performance bonds for developers.

Both matters have been chronic problem areas for enforcement and have resulted in unusual expense to taxpayers when the commission has been forced to assume maintenance on subdivision roads that were not built properly to county specifications.

Moments later, during discussion of the revised driveway pipe permit, commissioners decided to include discussion of the new permit in the subdivision regulations discussion. Discussing permit revisions brought to light a number of difficulties involved in creating a document to cover complicated circumstances that occur on the ground when installing driveway pipes. Road ‘closed’ vs. ‘impassable’

Emergency Management director Max Armstrong discussed with the commission road closings during inclement weather. Pitts noted that during area-wide inclement weather, the district does not have the manpower to physically barricade and post signs on all roads that need to be closed because of hazards to traffic.

Armstrong recommended following state practice by declaring roads “impassable” to traffic and notifying news media so the public could be notified in turn. The term “impassable” is to be used when, in the commissioner’s judgment, conditions are such as to greatly increase the likelihood of accidents if travel is allowed. Armstrong said there could be legal and insurance implications for those who choose to travel such roads, but that those implications were beyond the expertise and authority of the county commission.

Roads that are literally closed to traffic – for example in the case of a bridge out – must have closed signs posted and barricades set up at all possible access junctions to the route in question.