Every year, local governments around the state send a list of priorities to the Tennessee General Assembly laying out municipal needs for the coming legislative session.
The lead item on the Clarksville City Council’s agenda this year is finding money in the budget for road improvement and construction. That’s no surprise, as many Tennessee cities and counties need road work.
“We’re really trying to concentrate at that level on getting some roads built, because that’s just our Number 1 Achilles’ heel,” says Ward 12 Councilman Jeff Burkhart, who chaired the Ad-Hoc Legislative Committee. “Try to move some traffic.”
But less typically, city leaders have added four progressive measures to the legislative wish list, focused on restoring rights to rehabilitated felons and police accountability. The four would:
- No longer take away convicted felons’ right to vote or hold office
- Designate convicted felons as a a protected class as it relates to housing and employment discrimination, with the exception of sex offenders
- Mandate all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras when on duty
- Require law enforcement agencies to perform more thorough background checks that include social media with candidates excluded from employment that have any ties to racist and/or terrorist groups or have been fired from another law enforcement agency.
At the core of these measures is Ward 1 Councilman Richard “Reason” Garrett, who has served on the council for six years.
The agenda items are personal for Garrett, who is an ex-felon. In May 2004, he was convicted for possession of 7.3 oz of marijuana with intent to distribute in Jacksonville, North Carolina. He was released from prison in January 2006. Two years later, Garrett went to the Montgomery County Election Commission, filled out a form and got his voter rights restored.
In 2013, he submitted a petition to run for city council when his own council member resigned, but he was informed that he was not eligible to run “because I didn’t have any civil and citizenship rights,” he says.
Garrett turned to his Leadership Clarksville classmate, attorney Merriel Bullock-Neal, who represented him pro-bono. According to Garrett, Bullock-Neal had to talk with the Tennessee Attorney General and the district attorneys in Clarksville and Jacksonville to see if they would object to his rights being restored. There were no objections, and his case went before a circuit court judge who, after considering what Garrett had done for the community since he was released, awarded him full restoration of his rights. He was elected to the council in 2014 and re-elected in 2018.
The amount of questions and concerns that citizens wanted addressed predominantly centered around law enforcement accountability and how legislative bodies could help its citizens feel safer from those employed to protect and serve. – Richard Garrett
“My personal experiences have humbled me to where I’m not afraid to stand up for the underdogs and be a voice for the voiceless,” Garrett says. “I’m not concerned with good ‘ole boy system politics and feel the need to advocate for the people who elected me to serve their best interest. Oftentimes the legislation that I propose may not be the most popular amongst my peers, but each item means something to a taxpaying citizen that wants to have their voice heard.”
After the death of George Floyd earlier this summer, Garrett hosted a forum on race and justice in Clarksville. Panel members included the Mayor Joe Pitts, State Rep. Jason Hodges, D-Clarksville, law enforcement leaders, and Jimmie Garland, president of the NAACP-Clarksville. Discussion at the forum sparked the police-oriented measures, he says.
“The amount of questions and concerns that citizens wanted addressed predominately centered around law enforcement accountability and how the legislative bodies could help it citizens feel safer from those employed to protect and serve,” Garrett says. “From those candid discussions emerged these two actionable items.”
Body cameras are already required for Clarksville police officers, but the city council measure asks for them to become a statewide policy. Garrett points out that body cameras can both expose the actions of bad cops and vindicate them if wrongfully accused.
Since Floyd’s death, police officers across the country have also been held accountable for racist social media posts and actions. Garrett notes the council measure would aim to prevent people who post such content from ever entering the police force in the first place.
“The more intense background checks are designed to weed out the bad apples before they have the opportunity to disgrace their uniform and damage the lives of some many people impacted by the vicious cycle that we constantly see played out in the media,” Garrett says.
The city council will meet with the Montgomery County Commission on Tuesday evening. From there, the agenda will be sent to the Tennessee General Assembly for consideration.