By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee General Services Commissioner Steven Cates said Friday that Occupy Nashville protesters on the Legislative Plaza near the state Capitol has cost the state thousands of dollars, but he didn’t give a specific figure.
Cates spoke to reporters following a budget hearing for his department. He said there are areas of the plaza that have required pressure washing because of a lack of sanitation facilities.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has said unsanitary conditions were part of the reason he implemented a curfew and protesters were arrested. A federal judge has since temporarily struck down the curfew. At least two donated portable toilets have been placed near the plaza.
Cates didn’t address the arrests because of litigation. He said the protesters’ occupancy of the plaza for nearly a month has been costly.
“It’s very, very expensive to pressure wash and use solutions that don’t totally damage the surface,” Cates said.
He said there’s also costs associated with protesters running long cords from inside state buildings to power their laptops, as well as safety concerns if “plugs … don’t have the right rating.”
Haslam, who is holding a series of budget hearings for state departments, told reporters there was “limited taxpayer dollars” and that taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay.
“I do think there’s been a real effort by Occupy Nashville folks to be really responsible about how they maintain that area,” the governor said.
On Thursday, several members of Occupy Nashville delivered a letter to Haslam’s office, saying they want to collaborate with him “to achieve the best possible outcomes.”
The group said they “plan on being here for a while,” and intend to continue peaceful, orderly assemblies on the Legislative Plaza across the street from the state Capitol.
Haslam told the protesters in a letter Friday that his administration “wholeheartedly supports your First Amendment right to express your views,” but he also remains concerned.
“The safety and security of the plaza will not only benefit you but will have an effect on others who live in, work in and visit downtown Nashville,” Haslam said in the letter, which didn’t provide any specifics.
The protesters went to federal court Monday seeking a temporary restraining order against the governor, arguing a curfew and arrests violated their rights to free speech and freedom of assembly.
The lawsuit said Haslam approved the curfew after complaints over three misdemeanor violations around Legislative Plaza: “an assault, public urination and an apparent tryst beneath a magnolia tree.”
State troopers used the curfew to arrest 55 protesters over two days last week.
Both times a Nashville magistrate refused to jail the protesters, saying the state lacked probable cause to arrest them. They were released with citations.
The state has backed down on enforcing the curfew.
Haslam has said the state’s decision not to fight was not an admission of a mistake, but simply an agreement to a temporary restraining order