Commission’s ‘agenda’ part of a familiar pattern

Robert Houk • Jun 18, 2012 at 8:35 AM

You probably don’t remember the legislative agenda that was prepared by Washington County Attorney John Rambo last year to — as he put it — start a meaningful dialogue between the County Mayor Dan Eldridge and Greg Matherly, the chairman of the County Commission? Why should you? Although it sets very specific policy goals, this agenda was prepared far from the public’s view.

Washington County commissioners, however, haven’t forgotten about it. Over the last seven months or so, commissioners have been dutifully checking items off that list.

Make the county attorney a full-time employee? Check. Raise the salary of the county zoning administrator? Check. Place the county archives in the Washington County Courthouse? Check.

Perhaps I should say a majority of county commissioners have been voting to implement the legislative agenda. Joe Grandy, Ken Lyon, Mitch Meredith, Skip Odom and David Tomita have generally cast dissenting votes on these matters.

Even though the legislative agenda has never been officially sanctioned, commissioners seem to be faithfully following the list. A coincidence? I don’t think so.

It reminds me of how committee assignments used to be made by the Washington County Commission 20 years ago. I recall one particularly colorful commissioner, who served as chairman of the Committee on Committees, coming in with a hand-written list of committee assignments that he said someone had left in his mailbox at home.

“It seemed like a pretty good plan, so I brought it in for the committee to see,” I remember the late Jack Rutherford slyly telling his colleagues.

The committee agreed and voted to approve the mysteriously prepared list with little debate.

The legislative agenda isn’t much different. Someone has given some thought to these matters. Perhaps they have even discussed it in length. Given the importance of the issues, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that such discussions be held in the public, as required by the Sunshine Law.

Transparency is important. Discussing such matters publicly allows elected officials and concerned citizens to judge the motivations of those who make the proposals, as well as provide a forum for debating their merits.

Which brings me to a proposed rule change that would require other elected officeholders (such as Eldridge) and county staffers to request permission in writing to speak on specific issues beforehand in order to be heard at County Commission meetings. One former commissioner called the rule “childish” in an email to me.

The proposed rule seems to be designed to limit meaningful debate. Insiders tell me it is an effort to silence the county mayor at commission meetings. It seems Commissioner Mark Ferguson was angered last month to be questioned by Eldridge after the commissioner made a motion to give $500,000 to the Jonesborough seniors center. Interestingly, Ferguson’s generosity was $200,000 more than a figure quoted in the legislative agenda.

That’s curious since Ferguson has previously been so good about following the script.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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