The Washington County Commission will gather for its monthly meeting on Monday. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. in the second-floor courtroom of the Washington County Courthouse in Jonesborough.
In journalism, that wouldn’t be considered much of a lead. After all, commissioners meet to conduct their regular business every month.
Even so, we stand by our lead on this editorial. It’s important for you to know that your County Commission is meeting. Too many county residents (particularly those who live in Johnson City) don’t pay any attention to what goes on with their county government. They should.
And it’s important for county residents to know what their commissioners do when they gather. That’s why all county government meetings are open to the public. Commissioners are not allowed to conduct their business in secret. Some county officials would like to change that.
On this page today we have a guest column from Frank Gibson, the executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, who writes of an effort to weaken the state’s Sunshine Law to allow elected officials to meet without a quorum to discuss the public’s business. Citizens would not be apprised of when or where these non-quorum sessions are being held.
That’s wrong. Just as it was wrong years ago when competing factions of the Washington County Commission met before the board’s monthly meeting at different fast-food restaurants in Jonesborough to discuss strategy.
And we also believe it was wrong for a select few Washington County commissioners to sanction a so-called legislative agenda and present it to County Mayor Dan Eldridge outside public view. As Press staff writer Kate Prahlad reported earlier this month, Eldridge was concerned with the lack of transparency that went into preparing the three-page agenda.
“It’s very important that we publicly put on the table some of the issues we feel like we’re facing, and that we evaluate each of those issues and determine our priorities,” Eldridge said.
He’s right. Any fence-mending between the County Commission and the county mayor should be done in the open, and it should be done by the principal parties — not unelected officeholders, or officials who should be neutral in matters such as these. That includes County Attorney John Rambo, who is credited with authoring much of the legislative agenda. Rambo told this paper earlier this month that he wrote the agenda as a way to get Eldridge and Commission Chairman Greg Matherly talking.
We don’t question his intent, but we do have a problem with his methods. The items outlined in his legislative agenda are matters that should have been flushed out in public meetings. Some commissioners are now proposing to create a steering committee to deal with these matters. We wish them luck.
Another item included in Rambo’s proposed legislative agenda also gives us cause for concern — particularly since it directly applies to how his position is filled by the County Commission. The passage in question states: “A private act will be introduced to create the position of county attorney to be selected by the mayor, but the County Commission can elect who they want and the removal of the county attorney will take an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the County Commission. The terms of compensation are to be negotiated between the mayor and county attorney and approved or modified by the commission. Mr. Rambo’s term will be extended to 2015.”
It would seem to us Rambo and/or someone else have given some thought to this matter. Perhaps they have even discussed it in length. Given the importance of the position of county attorney, we don’t think it’s too much to ask that these discussions be held in the public. Certainly, those who helped write the state’s Sunshine Law thought that should be the case.
Transparency is important. Discussing such matters publicly allows elected officials and concerned citizens to judge the motivations of those who make the proposals, as well as provide a forum for debating their merits.
That’s why ALL Washington County residents should keep up with what’s going on at the Jonesborough courthouse.