Washington County Rules Committee selects 15 as number of planners

Gary B. Gray • Apr 11, 2013 at 9:14 PM

Prediction: When the County Commission’s April 22 meeting has concluded, the number of members on its Regional Planning Commission will stand at 15.

A good deal of concern shifted last month to the county’s Rules Committee when commissioners approved a resolution asking state law to be changed to allow the commission chairman, and not County Mayor Dan Eldridge, to have sole authority to recommend appointments to the Planning Commission.

Though the plug has not been pulled on Eldridge, and the matter of who will make the appointments remains in his hands for now, commissioners are hoping state legislation will afford them the opportunity to make the change. Presently, there is nothing that meets this description rising to the top of the General Assembly’s to-do list.

However, Eldridge’s move in February to seat five professional appointees as part of his open effort to reorganize and downsize the planning commission remains in play. The mayor also had recommended that membership be reduced from 15 to nine, including the reduction of county commissioners who serve on that body from six to four.

That’s not going to happen — not anytime soon.

The 17-7 vote last month to ask for changes in state law that would replace Eldridge with the commission chairman as the person responsible for recommending appointments was a clear sign as to where things were headed.

After the vote, Eldridge headed to the podium and told those who voted for the resolution that the move was nothing but retaliation against him. He also said he was surprised commissioners would “stoop” to asking that state law be changed.

So here we are.

The Rules Committee on Thursday unanimously voted to set the number at 15, and numbers were the only issue discussed on this matter. But if, or when, the recommended number clears the County Commission, the mayor will need to run about one dozen appointments through the inspection bin.

The first task at hand was naming a new committee chairman, due to the death of Joe Corso in January. Unanimous — Mark Ferguson, who immediately asked Commissioner David Shanks, who is not a member but was in attendance, if there was anything he’d like to say.

“I’m against the reduction,” he said. “I think the more democratic the better off we are. I’m concerned that my district is not being properly represented.”

Ferguson then called on Mike Rutherford, the county’s zoning administrator. Rutherford spread maps on the table showing the county’s districts. He ran off some numbers, including the fact Washington County covers 284 square miles. He also briskly announced that if the number was reduced to nine, the county would have no representation in several districts.

Ferguson turned to Eldridge, who was sitting to his left, and asked if there were problems with planning commissioners missing meetings.

Ferguson stood before Eldridge could answer.

“Commissioners couldn’t have a majority on the Planning Commission, and I see absolutely no problem with this,” he said. “I like the 15. I enjoyed having a certain amount of commissioners there. We like the support the commission brings back to the full commission.”

Two seats on the Planning Commission were vacated when Corso died in January and when Ken Lyon stepped down in February. That left four county commissioners on the Planning Commission whose terms expire in 2014: Alpha Bridger, Mark Larkey, Skip Oldham and Gerald Sparks.

The five-person Rules Committee is comprised of Ferguson, Sparks, Lee Chase, Roger Nave and Phyllis Corso, who was appointed to the County Commission last month, replacing her husband, Joe Corso.

The unexpected vote March 25 to stifle Eldridge’s recommendations disturbed some commissioners, because an entire month had passed since the full commission approved Eldridge’s recommended five professional appointees as part of his open effort to reorganize and downsize the Planning Commission.

At that time, commissioners who may have disagreed with the appointments, or Eldridge’s authority to recommend the appointments, did not speak up. Nor did they grumble, though they had a chance to do so. However, commissioners did agree to send the suggestion to reduce the planning commission’s membership to the Rules Committee.

On March 14, time was set aside for discussion of how many should serve on the Planning Commission. But on that day, no one but Chase and County Attorney John Rambo showed up, nixing any discussion or decision due to lack of a quorum.

The vote just more than a week later clearly set the course for the Planning Commission’s future makeup.

Recommended for You

    Johnson City Press Videos