Washington County Commissioner David Tomita said Thursday he plans to run for one of two City Commission seats up for grabs in the April 23 municipal election, but can an elected official serve two masters?
Tomita, 51, wants to continue to serve on the 25-member County Commission should he win a seat on the five-member City Commission, citing a need for better verbal and mental congruity between the two bodies and the failure of the City/County Liaison Committee to show any marked progress over the past few years.
“There’s not much interaction between the two bodies,” he said. “But they’re closely intertwined, whether you like it or not. We really have to pay attention and cooperate. Not so much regionally, but in Washington County, Johnson City and Jonesborough. The City/County Liaison Committee? There’s a lack of continuity.”
Tomita said he has not announced his intentions “officially,” but he said he does intend to run. He also said he was still looking into the legalities regarding his ability to serve on both bodies. But as of Thursday, his intention to do just that was apparent.
“I’ve been watching the interaction between the city and county,” he said. “And in order to move to where we need to be we need better communication. I would love to win a seat and stay on the County Commission, and I’m still in an exploratory mode regarding whether I would be able to do that.”
Tomita is in his first term as a county commissioner, which ends in 2014.
“That would be something that you would find in the city or county charters,” Blake Fontenay, Comptroller, Treasurer and Secretary of State communications director, said early Thursday about a person serving two elected positions in two separate tax-authorizing jurisdictions.
The city charter does not appear to include language prohibiting the move.
County Attorney John Rambo said he has not yet been asked to look into the matter.
“My initial reaction is that he could serve in both positions,” he said. “State law guides the county. The key phrase here is whether they are ‘incompatible offices.’ I don’t think they are, according to common law and the opinions of the state attorney general.”
According to state law, local officeholders can simultaneously hold seats as city commissioners and the General Assembly. Democrat Gary Odom served for several years both as a state lawmaker and as a Metro Nashville city councilman.
Metro Nashville council members Darren Jernigan and Bo Mitchell were elected last year to the Legislature, and they plan to hold both elected offices until 2014, according to The Tennessean.
“The way he presented it to me was he was looking at running for City Commission, and if he wins, he also would stay on as a county commissioner,” said County Mayor Dan Eldridge. “It would benefit the flow of information, and the decisions made would benefit both bodies. I see it as a positive thing.”
Tomita, a 1979 graduate of Science Hill High School, is First Tennessee’s Brokerage’s vice president/investment officer. He is married to wife Jenny and has three children; Anna, 17; Erin, 14; and Isabel, 12.
“I think we’ve got a lot of momentum going at ETSU, and Johnson City is a great place,” he said. “As my children get older, I want to help make this a place they want to come back to and live in. As for me, I can’t see serving more than two terms.”
Tomita is president of the SHHS Band Boosters; Dawn of Hope Foundation Board of Trustees member; Johnson City Junior Achievement board member; Hands On! Regional Museum board of directors member; Johnson City Development Authority board member; and former president of Second Harvest Food Bank. He also is on the Chamber Youth Leadership Program Steering Committee and is a member of First Tennessee Bank’s Diversity Council.
“I will likely divest myself of all other activities and responsibilities should I win a seat,” he said about the time he will need to devote to his profession and public office or offices. “I’m really interested in pursuing this. Folks are afraid to get out on the limb a little bit. You just can’t always say no. We’ve got to be able to take some well-calculated risks to move forward.”
Candidates have until noon Jan. 17 to hand in qualifying petitions.
So far, six people have picked up petitions: 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, and Bart Mikitowicz.
Tomita and former city commissioner Vance Cheek Jr. plan to run but have not yet picked up.