Law says David Tomita, a county commissioner running for City Commission, can serve on both

Gary B. Gray • Jan 10, 2013 at 11:02 AM

The legal question of whether Washington County Commissioner David Tomita can simultaneously hold that spot and a seat on the City Commission should he win one of two open positions in the April municipal election has been answered, and the answer is yes.

Washington County Administrator of Elections Maybell Stewart said Wednesday she has spoken with both Mark Goins, Tennessee Elections Commission coordinator, and Jim Epps IV, Johnson City staff attorney, and that nothing in either state law or the city charter prevents Tomita from holding both seats.

“It is my intention to retain the county seat upon winning the city seat -- I can confirm that,” Tomita said briefly Wednesday afternoon.

If successful, he would be the first to hold a spot on both commissions, according to city and county officials.

Tomita, 51, wants to continue to serve on the 25-member County Commission should he win a seat on the five-member City Commission. He has cited an immediate need for better communication between the two bodies and the failure of the City/County Liaison Committee to show any marked progress over the past few years.

“I don’t ever recall a seated County Commissioner running for a City Commission seat, or a seated city commissioner running for a County Commission seat,” said City Manager Pete Peterson. “This would be the first time I recall anyone expressing an interest to serve both boards at the same time. Anyone elected to both boards would have a very busy schedule.”

Peterson said he was unfamiliar with the legalities and that he assumed it would be the decision of the city attorney and the Washington County Election Commission as to whether or not this would be allowed according to the city charter and state laws. This now is an assumption that’s been put to bed.

“I recognize David Tomita as an exceptionally capable individual and if there is anyone who can successfully attend to the duties of both a city commissioner and a county commissioner, he would be that type of individual,” said City Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin. “And, I am happy to hear his reason for wanting to be on both bodies is to serve as a bridge between them.”

Johnson City’s charter, Article IV, Section 10, states that “All city elections, including all elections respecting bond issues, shall be held under the supervision of the county board of election commissioners.” It also says “any qualified voter of the city shall be eligible for election to the office of commissioner...,” which Tomita is.

He said last week that there is not much interaction between the two bodies, though “they’re closely intertwined, whether you like it or not.” He also expressed dissatisfaction with the City/County Liaison Committee -- a committee aimed at aiding communication.

Except for two packed meetings last year at which the topics of school funding and possible government consolidation resulted in some heavy-hitting discussions, the committee has been virtually nonexistent. The year prior and after have been typical, and meetings are reliably canceled time and time again.

Tomita said he has been watching the interaction between the city and county and that better communication is needed between the two in order “to move to where we need to be.”

The practice of serving on two boards or commissions has been in place in Unicoi County for years.

“Right now, Sue Jean Wilson serves on the Unicoi County Commission and as an alderman for the City of Erwin,” said Sarah Bailey, Unicoi County administrator of elections. “She took the alderman seat in November. Dwight Bennett is a Unicoi County commissioner, and he also serves as a City of Unicoi alderman. He’s held both seats for two terms.”

Bailey said the state does prohibit a city or county commissioner from serving simultaneously as a board member of the same jurisdiction’s board of education.

“When this first came up, we checked with the state,” she said. “We were told that unless a city charter does not allow it, then a person can hold both seats. Nobody could find anything in either city charter. It’s an interesting dynamic.”

Candidates have until noon January 17 to hand in qualifying petitions.

So far, eight people have picked up petitions: Tomita; Jenny Brock, Johnson City Board of Education member; Jane Myron, City Commissioner since 2005; T.K. Owens, who ran unsuccessfully this year for the U.S. Senate; Frank Bolus, a former Washington County Commissioner; William “Bud” Hill, who ran unsuccessfully for a City Commission seat in 2010; former city commissioner Vance Cheek Jr., and Bart Mikitowicz.

As of Wednesday, Brock was the only candidate to hand in a petition.

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