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Article 34

November 15. 2006 1:00PM

Gay marriage, English-only resolutions OK'd after hot debate

The Dispatch

Chairman Fred McClure got an early surprise at Tuesday night's regular meeting of the Davidson County Board of Commissioners: His call to adopt the agenda, usually a quick formality, was passed this time by only a 5-2 margin.

"I don't believe that's ever happened before," McClure commented at the beginning of the open session. It was an indicator of the occasionally heated discussion that would follow on two controversial agenda items.

In a surprise move, the board on Tuesday night took on not one but two contentious national issues, declaring the opinions of the board through separate resolutions. One of them, a resolution making English the official language of Davidson County government, was placed on the agenda well in advance of the meeting. The second, added only after the meeting was called to order at 7 p.m., was a reworked version of 2005's marriage resolution, which had been previously voted down 4-3.

The new resolution, which on Tuesday passed 5-2, called for the state General Assembly to allow a voter referendum on the issue of gay marriage, citing similar referendums in seven states during last week's election and more than a dozen such votes nationwide in recent years.

Commissioners Max Walser and Sam Watford each voted against adopting the amended agenda. Walser would say later that he was troubled that the public was not made aware in advance of the commissioners' discussion on the new marriage resolution.

"This democracy requires public input and not doing things in the dark of night," Walser said, adding that "the public had a right to know" the discussion would be taking place. Commissioner Larry Allen countered that democracy was the aim of the resolution.

"Democracy is the ability of the people to vote," he said.

Because of the late addition, no one from the audience rose to speak about the marriage amendment during the public address time. Two people took advantage of that time to comment on the English-only resolution, which Allen submitted.

Barney Hill, a regular speaker at the commissioners' meetings, lambasted the motivation of the newest member of the board, urging its other six members to "invite Larry Allen to pursue his xenophobic agenda elsewhere." Hill called the health of the English language "robust."

"Our language has succeeded in spite of government, not because of government. It has prevailed in the marketplace. Don't flatter yourselves by imagining that it requires rescue by the likes of you," Hill said.

County resident Anita Cherry, however, spoke in support of the amendment.

"This resolution may be a baby step tonight that becomes a giant step in the future," she said.

When the time came for the resolution's reading, Allen appended a final clause not included in the original draft. The last sentence of the resolution asserts that "meetings must be conducted in English, official acts and records must be printed and maintained in English."

To these final words, Allen added: "... unless otherwise required by federal or state law."

County attorney Robert Hedrick told the board that the resolution, as read by Allen at the meeting, should have no effect on citizens' access to county business. Walser asked the board to be sure that the resolution would not prevent people from having interpreters at meetings if they desired.

"I couldn't see this as precluding an interpreter for anybody," McClure said.

Watford, citing the resolution's non-binding nature, called it "a waste of time and paper."

"This is a do-nothing resolution that serves no purpose at all,"
he said. It was a sentiment he repeated twice more, and for which he later received an admonishment from McClure that all commissioners have the right to bring resolutions to the board, and that they all deserve "due diligence" and serious consideration.

Commissioner Cindy Akins and Allen both took umbrage with Watford's characterization, with Akins declaring: "I don't think anyone here is wasting their time."

Allen asserted that many people had lost faith in higher levels of government and said it was a commissioner's duty to express their constituents' opinions.

"A lot of people agree with the wording of this resolution," he said.

In the end, the resolution passed with no dissenting votes. Walser this morning said that all the vote meant to him was that "in our government circles, meetings will be conducted in English.

"It does not say that all people have to speak English," he said, adding that he would never support any such measure.

Allen was pleased with the result, saying after the meeting that the resolution "basically just re-affirmed state law." He again referred to the county's citizens who agreed with the resolution.

"It lets them know that we do hear their pleas," he said.

The unrest in the commissioners' meeting room, however, did not end with that vote. Akins' resolution, a retooled version of a similar one introduced by McClure in 2005, was presented to the board amid protests by Walser and Watford, both of whom have gone on record as saying that the issue has no place in county government.

The resolution, which declares that the state's "strong marriage laws" can only be protected through a constitutional amendment, differs only superficially from its previous incarnation. Both resolutions ultimately call for the state General Assembly to open the issue of a North Carolina marriage amendment to a voter referendum.

"The North Carolina Constitution allows people the right to vote on constitutional amendments," McClure said. Akins said that was her sole motivation in submitting the resolution. She acknowledged after the meeting that she is against gay marriage personally, saying it was "not natural," but said she would have brought the resolution before the commissioners even if that were not the case.

"All I'm asking is for the people to vote," she said.

Watford, who voted against the original resolution last year, returned to his opinion that the issue was political.

"This is nothing but politicians wanting to get their names out there and be associated with this," he said.

Watford, Walser, Commissioner Don Truell and former chairman Fred C. Sink all voted against the original measure, while McClure, Akins and Commissioner Larry Potts found themselves in the minority. With Sink replaced by Allen on the current board, however, the resolution's original proponents had a 4-3 majority. Sink's seat was vacated after an appeals court upheld his felony conviction for having a county employee fix a toilet at his home on county time.

Truell, however, said at the meeting that he could support the new resolution as well.

"I can't compare this resolution to the (one) we had last year," he said. "A lot of the rhetoric has been taken out."

Akins scoffed at Watford's claim that the vote was political, saying she purposefully put off placing it on the agenda until after the election. She noted as well that her time on the board was coming to an end, so she had nothing to gain politically by bringing up the resolution.

Walser and Watford were the only two to vote against the measure. Both commissioners said their votes didn't signify support for gay marriage; rather, it signified their shared opinion that the issue was not one to be discussed at the county level.

Glen Baity can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 227, or glen.baity@the-dispatch.com.

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