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Robert Houk

Opinion Page Editor
rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com
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As I See It

Political intrigue still haunts courthouse

October 24th, 2011 11:57 am by Robert Houk

It seems appropriate that the next meeting of the Washington County Commission will be held at 9 a.m. on Oct. 31 — Halloween.
I can think of a no more ghoulish bunch of politicians than our esteemed county commissioners. It’s certainly scary how they have turned a deaf ear to calls to downsize the commission, particularly since many of them promised to do just that in 2010 when asking for our votes.
It’s downright frightening how cavalier many of the commissioners have become when it comes to living up to their campaign pledges. By all outward appearances, it’s still “good old boy” business as usual in Jonesborough. No significant changes have been made to the way commissioners conduct business. And I have to wonder what happened to the open government we were promised a year ago.
But what really scares me is just how easy it has been for some of the commissioners who campaigned as reformers to get entangled in the political intrigue that has gone on for decades at the Washington County Courthouse. A few of the newcomers have joined with disgruntled old-timers on the commission in an attempt to make County Mayor Dan Eldridge’s life as miserable as possible.
This makes for interesting political theater, but not good public policy. The buffoonery over passage of the new budget was a prime example of that.
Another is a request from the county’s zoning office for pay hikes totalling more than $85,000. As Press staff writer Kate Prahlad noted in a story earlier this month, County Zoning Administrator Mike Rutherford has asked the County Commission’s Budget Committee to make his employee Chris Pape a chief deputy in the office and increase his salary; hire an assistant for Pape at a salary of $33,000; and increase the zoning administrator’s salary to 90 percent of that earned by Highway Superintendent Johnny Deakins. If approved, Rutherford’s annual salary would be increased from the current $63,505 (plus an additional $5,000 he receives for stormwater duties) to $85,441.
That, my friends, is quite a pay adjustment. And it is almost verbatim from a so-called “legislative agenda” for the County Commission that was drawn up by County Attorney John Rambo and presented to Eldridge a few weeks ago. Eldridge was not on board with many of the proposals contained in the three-page document. He also told Prahlad he is not pleased with the secrecy that went into drafting this agenda.
Commissioners have since decided to create a steering committee to develop the board’s goals. But don’t be surprised if every item on the legislative agenda comes before the commission for a vote — including two major items to change the way the county attorney and zoning administrator are hired and fired.
It looks as if Rutherford has the votes on the commission to get his salary hikes. One of those votes is likely to come from his aunt, Commissioner Alpha Bridger. Rutherford has enjoyed a history of relatives serving on the County Commission. Both his late mother, Canna Rutherford, and his late uncle, Jack Rutherford, were long-serving and influential members of the board.

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