Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge has vetoed a resolution passed by the County Commission on March 25 that asks to change state law and remove him as the person responsible for appointing Planning Commission members.
In a letter sent to commissioners Thursday, he said the body failed to fulfill its responsibility and that allowing the County Commission to appoint planning commissioners will give them “absolute power and control” over the planning and zoning process.
“State law provides for the appointment of planning commissioners by the county mayor and confirmation of the appointments by the county legislative body,” Eldridge wrote in the one-page letter. “If the commission finds my appointments unacceptable, the commission should have exercised its authority under the law to reject the appointments. In my opinion, it is completely inappropriate for the County Commission to seek a change in state law to remove the mayor’s authority to make appointments without first exercising its remedy provided under current state law.”
Normally, commissioners can override the veto with a simple majority — in this case 13 votes. But Commissioner Mark Ferguson, who was elected to serve as the county’s Rules Committee chairman Wednesday, said the veto is not valid.
“The resolution passed on March 25, and state law only allows him to veto a resolution within 10 days following passage of that resolution,” he said. “I tried calling Mr. Eldridge today, but his secretary said he would not be around. I also talked with the county attorney about his veto powers.
“The problem is, we have 26 people elected to run the county — 25 commissioners and the mayor. The way politics works is you just sit down and lay out the issues. He won’t have dialogue. He just doesn’t seem to want to do it.”
The resolution passed 17-7 after being unexpectedly introduced last month by Commissioner Gearld Sparks just after the rules were suspended. As of Friday, there had been no specific legislation brought to light by commissioners on which they could use to “piggyback” their wishes.
“This is exactly what the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of county government are intended to prevent,” Eldridge wrote.
He goes on to state that, rather than adding credibility to the process, as he encouraged in a Feb. 14 letter to commissioners, the resolution only contributes to the perception of planning and zoning in Washington County being a politically influenced process rather than an objective administrative process.
“Through this action, the County Commission has clearly communicated to me, ‘either appoint who we tell you to appoint or we will take away your authority to make appointments’,” Eldridge said.
In February, Eldridge recommended five professional appointees as part of his open effort to reorganize and downsize the Planning Commission. 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.
Though approval of his recommended appointees is on the back burner, the Rules Committee unanimously voted Wednesday to fix the number of planning commissioners at 15. That recommendation goes to the full commission April 22.
Commissioner Roger Nave, who also is a member of the Rules Committee, said Friday that he, too, felt the veto would not hold up.
“Washington County is not Washington, D.C., and the argument about executive and legislative branches won’t work,” Nave said. “The mayor is entitled to his opinion; the County Commission is entitled to theirs. The County Commission simply voiced their position, and there has yet to be a vote on the mayor’s appointees. The resolution we passed is nothing more than choosing who will make the appointments.”
Two seats on the Planning Commission were vacated when Joe 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.
Commissioner Ethan Flynn, who was one of seven to vote against last month’s resolution, said Eldridge’s concerns were fair.
“There are procedures in place that we have not followed through on,” he said. “For example, we could have voted to reject his recommended appointments. There probably is some legitimate concerns about how the Planning Commission should be constructed. I think we should air it out. We have the ability to thoughtfully arrive at a conclusion.”
Eldridge has said there is a need for the Planning Commission to be comprised of members with more expertise in these fields and that some builders and developers have the perception that burdensome regulations related to permitting may be “politically motivated.”
The mayor’s recommended appointees are: Rex Garrison, with 23 years as a residential and commercial appraiser; Tim Hicks, with 32 years in building and development; Sam Lindley, with 34 years as a civil engineer designing residential, commercial and institutional projects; Chuck Mason, with 30 years’ experience as owner/manager of a 100-plus employee company operating in multiple states as a construction and farm equipment dealer; and Joe McCoy, with 30 years as a licensed surveyor in Tennessee.