Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

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Jan. 5

The Johnson City Press on allowing time for appropriate input at public board meetings:

For decades this newspaper’s motto has been “What the people don’t know WILL hurt them.”

Today we will add this: “What the people can’t SAY will hurt them.”

Public input is a key element of a representative democracy. Without access for citizens to discuss concerns, elected officials will work in a self-serving and self-affirming vacuum.

For the Johnson City Board of Education, that means listening to the comments of taxpayers, educators, parents and even students as the board sets policy and takes other actions.

That does not mean, however, that board members must go lockstep with the majority of what they hear. They are charged with making decisions in the best interests of students, families and teachers, not merely rubber-stamping the loudest voices’ ideas.

And with input comes personal responsibility for what you say and how you say it. Freedom of speech does not give you a license to be abusive or obstructive.

The novel coronavirus pandemic and its effects on education and families seem to have brought out the worst in people. Local school boards, including Johnson City’s, have been assaulted with unreasonable and insulting demands on more than one occasion. Smug COVID-19 deniers, anti-maskers and spoiled parents have been the culprits.

It reached a tipping point Dec. 7 when a Jonesborough resident whose children do not attend city schools disrupted the board’s meeting to protest COVID-19 mask policies. Chairwoman Kathy Hall called a recess after the man refused to wear a mask during his comments to the board. That incident spurred a special meeting on Dec. 18 to discuss revising public comment guidelines, and on Monday, the board settled on a new policy.

As Staff Writer Brandon Paykamian reported, the new policy limits comments to those specifically from district stakeholders. That would include students, parents of students, district employees and people who pay property taxes in Johnson City.

The board will also reduce individual comments from five minutes to three minutes, allowing 30 minutes total for topics on the agenda. Separate public forums could be held for issues that demand more time.

For the most part, it’s a reasonable policy. We’d also suggest that those who address the board should be required to do so with decorum; otherwise they should have no place at the microphone.

We’d also note that non-city property owners in Washington County also have stakes in city schools, since property taxes collected countywide support both public school districts, not just the county’s schools. A revision to reflect that stake is prudent.

No one on the board appears to be trying to stifle public input. On the contrary, this policy seems to welcome comments in an efficient and fair manner. It allows for the board’s actual constituents to have the necessary voice toward decision making.

Three minutes is more than enough time to address a point. If more words are needed, people certainly have the ability to write letters, make phone calls, issue statements and voice their concerns through other methods.

School boards and other government bodies have important business to conduct, and they cannot have meeting time upended by rabble-rousers, interlopers and argumentative people.

Board members must allow time for appropriate input. They must allow people latitude in opinion. They must listen, engage and gauge.

We encourage the Johnson City board to regularly live up to the provision for additional public hearings outside of regular board meetings, especially when key policy points and decisions are at stake. The community deserves those opportunities.

Online: https://www.johnsoncitypress.com

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Jan. 5

The Kingsport Times-News on new laws in Tennessee in 2021:

A new year brings new state laws. Tennessee and Virginia have made changes in laws affecting public health and safety of which residents should be aware.

According to TobaccoFreeKids.org, smoking kills more people than alcohol, AIDS, car crashes, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined, and thousands more die from other tobacco-related causes such as fires caused by smoking and smokeless tobacco use. But even as decades of anti-tobacco efforts have reduced its use, more than 22% of Tennessee high school students now use e-cigarettes, in part because only Tennessee and three other states do not regulate indoor vaping at all, something the next General Assembly should address.

But progress was made last year, and effective Jan. 1 the age to purchase, possess, transport, smoke or consume any tobacco, hemp or vapor products including cartridges was raised from 18 to 21 in Tennessee. The new law puts the state in line with federal law and ensures the state will receive $32 million in federal block grant funding.

It is also unlawful for someone under 21 to possess tobacco or vaping products or to accept them from any person. If found with these products, someone under 21 can be fined. The new law also allows local governments to prohibit smoking on playgrounds with a two-thirds vote. A “playground” includes an indoor or outdoor facility that is intended for recreation of children.

Local governments should waste no time putting such ordinances into effect.

In Virginia, it has been illegal to talk or text on a cell phone or other personal communication device while driving. But now the mere act of holding a cell phone while driving can get you a ticket — an expensive one. A first-time violation of this new law is a $150 fine. If caught again it’ll cost you $250.

Why so much? Because distracted driving takes nearly 40,000 lives annually, says EndDD.org. People are as impaired when they drive and talk on a cell phone as they are when they drive intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit of 0.08 percent. And cell phone users are 5.36 times more likely to get into an accident than undistracted drivers, says a University of Utah study.

Kudos to a local government that has set the standard for protecting dogs from backyard abuse.

Effective Jan. 1, no dog may be tethered or chained and left unattended in the limits of Johnson City. A dog or puppy may only be tethered to a fixed object if the animal is under observation of its owner. No puppy under the age of 6 months can be placed on a trolley or pulley system or tethered. And a fence or pen for dogs must be a minimum of 100 square feet of space, per dog.

Other local governments should follow Johnson City’s lead.

Online: https://www.timesnews.net

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Jan. 3

The Herald-Citizen on deploying COVID-19 vaccines in Tennessee:

Hundreds of health care workers and first responders in Putnam County have already gotten their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine as soon as it became available a couple of weeks ago, and just this week, we learned that teachers and those ages 75 and older will be able to get the vaccine beginning at 8 a.m. Jan. 3 at a drive-through clinic on Carlen Drive next to Avery Trace Middle School.

Since the COVID-19 virus came to Tennessee more than eight months ago, 8,600 of our friends and neighbors in Putnam County have tested positive, 166 have been hospitalized and 119 have lost their lives.

Cookeville Regional Medical Center staff have treated more than 1,000 COVID-19 patients from Putnam and surrounding counties.

Statewide, the highest percentage of deaths have been those ages 81 and older, closely followed by people from 71 to 80 years old.

We’re grateful that our state department of health officials decided to target our most vulnerable populations with vaccines that have been authorized by the FDA for emergency use.

Byrdstown doctor William Todd, who also recently received his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, told us last week that these vaccines are among the most effective ever produced and calling the vaccines “a bright ray of hope in this cold, dark winter that we all face.”

Vaccines are one of the greatest innovations of our time, beginning with the smallpox vaccine more than two hundred years ago and preventing 2 to 3 million deaths each year from diseases like diptheria, tetanus, whooping cough, influenza and measles, according to the World Health Organization.

We applaud the doctors like Jane Gotcher and nurses and first responders like Putnam Emergency Management Agency Director Tyler Smith who’ve already set the example by stepping up to be first in line to get the vaccine.

We know this won’t be a cure-all, like Dr. Todd wrote us this week. It will take many months to get the vaccine into the arms of people across our state and nation. It will still be important to social distance, wash our hands and wear a mask when we are in close contact with other people.

But if these vaccines have a chance at preventing infections and saving lives, we think it’s worth a shot.

Online: https://herald-citizen.com