Washington County Commissioners on Monday set the number of members of the Regional Planning Commission at 15 after a verbal tussle over what some commissioners see as County Mayor Dan Eldridge’s lack of concern for rural areas.
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 to fix the number of planning commissioners at 15. On Monday, that number was set by the full commission. But Commissioner and Rules Committee Chairman Mark Ferguson said he felt compelled to question the mayor’s motivation.
“I’ve sort of kept silent in this, but I think this is worth bringing up,” Ferguson said. “I’ve had a lot of phone calls about rural Washington County being underrepresented.”
“Did the appointments I recommended give you any reason to believe that I was not concerned about representing Washington County?” Eldridge replied. “Are you insinuating my appointments were solely for Johnson City? The concern I have based on what I’m hearing is that just because a planning commissioner doesn’t live in a certain area that they won’t properly represent an area of a county.”
“Do you have a problem with advertising these positions?” Ferguson asked.
“I do not,” Eldridge responded.
“Are you planning to advertise for these positions?” Ferguson asked.
“No. I hear what you are saying, but I’m not following your logic,” the mayor said.
Commissioner David Shanks spoke up.
“I have to agree with Mr. Ferguson. Washington County needs representatives in rural areas. Jonesborough and Johnson City already have planning commissions.”
“Perhaps some commissioners currently serving might want to step down so Mr. Shanks can serve on the planning commission,” Eldridge said.
On March 25, commissioners voted 17-7 on a resolution that asks to change state law to allow commissioners their choice of having the county mayor or the commission chairman be responsible for appointing planning commission members.
On April 11, Eldridge vetoed that resolution. In a letter sent to commissioners that day, he said the body failed to fulfill its responsibility and allowing the County Commission to appoint planning commissioners will give them “absolute power and control” over the planning and zoning process.
Contrary to what Ferguson and Commissioner Roger Nave told the Johnson City Press that day — that the veto was invalid in that it came later than 10 days after the resolution’s passage — state law reveals the veto has been intact to this point.
The resolution was passed March 25; the veto came April 11.
“If the county mayor does not sign or veto a resolution or report the mayor’s action to the legislative body within 10 days after the resolution is submitted to him or her, the resolution becomes effective without the mayor’s signature after 10 days or at a later date if the resolution so provides,” according to state statute (T.C.A. 5-6-107).
The resolution was submitted to Eldridge on April 3, meaning he had 10 days from that time to veto the resolution, and he did so within that time frame.
Neither Eldridge nor commissioners brought the subject to the floor for discussion or action.
Meanwhile, a nearly hour-long debate on the merits of a school safety risk assessment resolution brought commissioners right back to where they had been before the matter was introduced for a vote.
On March 11, the Budget Committee unanimously voted to send a resolution to commissioners that, if approved, would set in motion the hiring of a company to perform detailed safety risk assessments of all county schools. The estimated cost is $84,000.
The request came from the Education Committee and then the Board of Education, which agreed to procure third-party security assessments of the county’s 14 schools not to exceed $6,000 per school, contingent on approval by the County Commission. Funding would come from a reserve account containing funds from unclaimed county property, said Bobbye Webb, Accounts and Budgets Office director.
Eldridge introduced the resolution, saying this matter had been discussed publicly for more than two months.
“Have the schools done a risk assessment?” Ferguson asked.
Director of Schools Ron Dykes, who along with the Board of Education had already given the plan their blessing, stepped up. He began talking about how he and Sheriff Ed Graybeal had been communicating and that the sheriff’s office had the ability to do the assessments.
“We will do the job to the best of our ability,” Graybeal said. “I have no doubt in my mind we can put a task force together. We’re not going to make any money.”
What Graybeal meant was that his department would do the assessment for free, which immediately grabbed some commissioners’ attention. Discussion ensued about saving money and that a professional company may not be needed.
In the end, commissioners wound up at the beginning, voting to approve the resolution. It states simply that the assessments will be done if money is available. It has and will remain Dykes’ decision as to how much is spent and who does the assessments. With that in mind, the resolution passed 19-5.
“There is a cost associated if the sheriff does this,” said Commissioner David Tomita. “It’s not free. I don’t think a little bit of an investment on the front end is a bad thing.”
County Attorney John Rambo also informed commissioners that he had worked with state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, and was able to get specific language in a bill likely to pass that will not require the county to also fund Johnson City schools for the purposes of school safety, and especially the use of SROs.
Basically, if the money goes toward law enforcement — in this case — to the sheriff’s office, and not directly to the school system, the money would not have to be shared.