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Liaison committee fails to meet again

Gary B. Gray • Jul 26, 2013 at 3:42 PM

The plug was pulled on Thursday’s Johnson City-Washington County Liaison Committee meeting without notice just when it appeared communication within the group was needed more than ever.

The Press learned about the cancelation inadvertently Tuesday when the city’s Community Relations Director, Becky Hilbert, accompanied by two reporters, passed by the conference room at city hall in which the meetings are usually conducted.

She mentioned it had been canceled when the committee came up in conversation. A few minutes later, City Manager Pete Peterson said there was “no agenda.” The quarterly meeting was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday. The press received no emails or other confirmation prior to the meeting date.

During the April meeting, members agreed it was a worthy forum and that, perhaps, they needed to meet more often, that there was too much at stake not do so, and that the committee did serve as a very valuable avenue through which many shared concerns and issues could be communicated.

Four new members were added at that meeting. It appeared they were stepping up efforts to open the lines of communication, and members pledged to elect new officers and start meeting monthly instead of quarterly.

David Tomita, a liaison committee member, also both a city and county commissioner, said on Thursday that he and a few other county commissioners would instead be sitting in on the county Board of Education meeting at which a long-range facility plan would be discussed.

“The full (25-member) county commission was invited to be there, but I doubt that many will be there,” he said. “We didn’t have an agenda (liaison committee), but we do now.”

City Commissioner and committee member Jenny Brock said Thursday morning she had not received notice that the liaison committee meeting had been canceled. She did, however, say she received an email from Tomita.

“His email stated that a number of commissioners wouldn’t be able to attend (the liaison committee meeting),” Brock said.

The question is whether that’s reason enough to put the kabash on the meeting.

“We were going to come up with our guiding principles at this meeting,” Brock added. “And, we do have a lot of projects we’re both involved in, including the new animal shelter. So we wanted to take our time and identify what the issues are so that both the city and county commissions can be advised so that everyone’s on the same page.”

Liaison committee members and County Commissioners, Pete Speropulos, Richard Matherly and Phyllis Corso represent the county. Tomita, Lee Chase and Phyllis Corso, also serve on the county’s Joint Education Committee, which includes two other members: Ben Bowman and Mark Larkey. Tomita and Brock were appointed by the City Commission to represent the liaison committee after they were elected in April.

This means Peterson, Brock and City Commissioner Jeff Banyas, also a committee member, would have been available for Thursday’s meeting. On the county side, Speropulos and Matherly could have joined in some type of discussion.

“There is an agenda for tonight,” Speropulos said late Thursday. “It looked organized there, but it looks like it’s unorganized.”

Though the county schools’ long-range plan is important, so is keeping open the lines of communication between to entities that keep announcing this need. There are dozens of issues that need attention. Concerns pop up on a regular basis at both Johnson City and Washington County commission meetings and workshops, and there has been no lack of chatter on both sides for the need for better communication.

The committee, which was put together to do just that, last had a meeting at which major issues were discussed in January 2012. That was when an unexpectedly high number of Washington County commissioners showed up and openly and overtly pushed to get the city officially on board to sell voters on a local option sales tax increase to help fund schools.

Since that time, the committee has met once -- in April. They are scheduled to meet again on Oct. 24

Though they did so in very measured steps, the group talked generally at its last meeting about shared concerns: annexation, school funding and safety.

What is the committee’s purpose?

“We are more or less a bridge,” Speropulos said at the time.

Brock suggested an agenda for the quarterly meetings be put together and that a chairman be named at the next meeting.

At last year’s meeting, Speropulos and County Commissioner Lee Chase raised the question of who, if anyone, actually chaired the committee or served as moderator. No one had any answers. They also asked if an agenda is normally formulated for the meeting. There had been none.

The result: Chase volunteered to head the meetings, but only as a moderator. He was not in attendance at the April meeting.

Last May, the group was scheduled to convene again, but that the meeting was canceled one day before it was to be held, because “there was nothing on the agenda,” according to both city and county officials.

City Commissioner Clayton Stout expressed his disappointment at the time.

“Honestly, when you have two parties with this much on the table you need to get together,” he said. “Communication is the key if you’re going to succeed. With the challenges we’re facing, it doesn’t make good business sense to put these meetings off. I don’t know what the deterrent is there.”