City/County Liaison Committee meeting canceled again; officials say issues need more “air time”

Gary B. Gray • Jan 24, 2013 at 8:52 PM

Annexation. Education funding. Possible school consolidation. Tax distribution. Establishment of a new animal shelter. Transportation. Solid waste issues.

These and dozens of other concerns pop up on a regular basis at both Johnson City and Washington County meetings both large and small. Invariably, one side ends up citing the other for delays or miscommunication.

But there is no lack of chatter on both sides for the need for better communication, and that chatter is delivered on a consistent basis. One county commissioner, David Tomita, is running for a seat on the City Commission, and he is largely basing his campaign on the need to open those channels.

Meanwhile, the City/County Liaison Committee, which was put together to do just that, last had a meeting at which major issues caused a serious stir in January 2012. That was when an unexpectedly high number of Washington County commissioners showed up and openly and overtly pushed to get the city officially onboard to sell voters on a local option sales tax increase to help fund schools. The committee met again in May to continue that conversation, and it has not convened since.

This month’s meeting was canceled one day before it was to be held, apparently because “there was nothing on the agenda,” according to both city and county officials.

“I’m disappointed that this was canceled,” City Commissioner Clayton Stout said Thursday. “Honestly, when you have two parties with this much on the table you need to get together. Communication is the key if you’re going to succeed. With the challenges we’re facing, it doesn’t make good business sense to put these meetings off. I don’t know what the deterrent is there.”

The committee has been a hit-and-miss endeavour, and many meetings in the past have been poorly attended or canceled. The next one is scheduled for April 25.

The Johnson City Press on Thursday asked the city to provide updated information on the committee. City Manager Pete Peterson was not available for comment. However Juanita Phillips, his administrative secretary, responded through the city’s Community Relations Office.

“As far as I know, (County Commissioner) Lee Chase is chairman,” she wrote.

He is not. And, he has reminded the Press about that fact when asked to field some questions about the committee.

At last year’s meeting, County Commissioners Pete Speropulos and Chase raised the question of who, if anyone, actually chaired the committee or served as moderator. No one had any answers. They also asked if an agenda is normally formulated for the meeting. There had been none.

The result: Chase volunteered to head the meetings, but only as a moderator. An agenda was supposed to be compiled prior to all future meetings from that point forward. As we now know, an agenda was not compiled, at least not in the past three months.

Speropulos also suggested the committee meet on a more regular basis to facilitate better communication. The group, when it has not canceled meetings, has been gathering on a quarterly basis. Speropulos suggested the committee meet every two months.

The idea yielded no objections at the time. But that was one year ago, and nothing has changed.

“It’s important to me,” Speropulos said Thursday. “I think it would be better if we met every two months. The biggest thing, I think, is to make sure the right hand knows what the left hand is doing and how it’s going to affect each entity.”

A request by the Press in January 2012 for a list of committee members from the city cited Commissioner Jane Myron as chairwoman. She was at that month’s meeting, but it was Peterson who was sitting at the head of the table and running the show.

“This committee is comprised of Johnson City, Jonesborough and Washington County officials, and works toward greater cooperation and understanding on issues and projects, which have countywide implications. (Board meets each month),” Phillips wrote.

It does not meet monthly. Quarterly meetings are scheduled.

At the January meeting last year, County Mayor Dan Eldridge, Superintendent of Schools Ron Dykes and County Attorney John Rambo also asked for a few other things, including more frequent meetings, a more varied selection of city and school staff in attendance, a broad request that communication between the two governing bodies be tighter and that information be made more accessible and transparent on both sides.

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