Jail threat came with gavel bang

Friday, May 13, 2011

As predicted by an opponent of the amendment, Lewisburg's City Council on Tuesday voted 3-2 to change cemetery grave decoration rules, but it came after another vocal dispute between two councilmen that prompted the mayor to use her gavel and threaten to have them "taken to jail."

Mayor Barbara Woods brought to the meeting 21 photos of graves decorated here and elsewhere to illustrate what she saw as a flaw in the amendment championed by Councilman Robin Minor. One grave sports a convertible with potted plants. Several have stone borders around the cemetery plots.

As amended now, City Manager David Orr and Public Works Director Kenny Ring must decide what's appropriate or not, according to discussion that Woods tried to control by having Councilmen address "the chair" instead of each other.

Councilman Ronald McRady opposed changing new rules he presented from the Cemetery Board and unanimously adopted by the Council last year. Those rules led to removal of mementos, statuary, and other grave decorations, much to the dismay of relatives still grieving their loss.

Since it's changed, McRady contends that Minor and councilmen Odie Whitehead Jr. have "gutted the ordinance" so much that city staff won't have a standard to use when trying to decide what's allowed.

"I'm disappointed that we have a councilman who would shuck something off," McRady said in an apparent reference to Minor who replied, "If you want to be a gentleman, I'll meet you outside."

Wood interpreted those as fighting words and decided to intervene with a loud rap of the chairman's gavel, calling them to stop arguing.

"I'll have all three of you taken outside and taken to the jail," she said Tuesday night.

Midday Wednesday, Woods recalled her days as a classroom teacher and school principal.

"If I were still a principal with two kids in school behaving that way, I'd have to have them arrested," she said. "You can't let that happen."

She does have the authority to direct police action, Woods said.

It could be based on a potential charge of disorderly conduct, simple assault or some other charge that a police officer might see as suitable, she indicated, adding that her direction would be to the police chief, who attends council meetings.

Wednesday, Woods received calls of support for her intervention and people commented to her in person at stores or other places she'd been on that morning, she said.

"I am embarrassed and ashamed that that kind of behavior was committed by city officials at a public meeting and that my reaction was required to bring the meeting back to order," the mayor said.

Once the incident stopped, she told the council, "There are questions here that need to be addressed."

Before the changes that were adopted, Councilman Quinn Brandon Stewart said, "This is a rash decision and it's not very well thought out." She noted that Minor admitted a mistake by voting for the changes as presented last year by McRady on behalf of the Cemetery Board. She suggested delay so as to consider the entire situation.

"I don't know how you think Mr. Orr or Mr. Ring would know how to make a determination," she said.

She suggested a separate meeting on the subject, but Whitehead had already indicated he wanted the amendment finalized Tuesday.

It was, on a vote with McRady and Stewart voting no, and Councilmen Hershel Davis, Minor and Whitehead voting yes.