Deputy restrains Washington Co. commissioner as argument erupts over last week's meeting

Gary B. Gray • Jan 28, 2014 at 9:35 AM

Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge had some explaining to do Monday.

County Owned Property Committee members cornered him inside a George P. Jaynes Justice Center courtroom after the County Commission meeting and did not let up for a good 15 minutes.

Eldridge told the Johnson City Press last week he had asked committee members to be in attendance at a continued Budget Committee meeting where a property committee proposal for Washington County Courthouse renovations was being discussed.

Turns out that hadn’t happened.

“It says here that you said we were notified,” Commissioner and COP member Doyle Cloyd yelled while rapping his forefinger on a copy of the article. “You’re lying.”

Cloyd was not in a mellow mood. Neither was fellow COP member Mark Ferguson. Both were in the mayor’s face, backing him up at times against the judge’s bench and telling how he had made the COP look bad on purpose.

“You lied to us,” Ferguson said in a booming voice. “Was there an email sent out? We’re tired of it.”

Cloyd, his face turning red, continued blasting Eldridge at close range, causing Washington County Sheriff’s Capt. Larry Denny to physically restrain Cloyd.

Surrounded and in a tight spot, Eldridge initially said he had contacted Zoning Administrator Mike Rutherford to let COP members know about the meeting.

Rutherford is running for Eldridge’s seat in the May 6 Republican primary, and the incumbent’s explanation was greeted with shouts and some members pacing back and forth raising their hands in the air.

“You guys are just setting up political support for Mike Rutherford,” Eldridge said quietly.

Angry members let out sighs and loud retorts, shaming the mayor.

“He lies to us all the time,” COP member Alpha Bridger said. “He gets up and walks out like a kid that didn’t get his candy.”

COP Chairwoman Phyllis Corso walked up to Eldridge and asked if he would attend the committee’s upcoming meeting where they will resume talks on the additional $110,000 they’ve recommended to finish second-floor renovations.

“If it will be civil, and ...”

That’s about all he could get in before the verbal barrage began again. He then calmly headed for the exit.

The following appeared in the Press on Jan. 23: “County Mayor Dan Eldridge recommended at the Jan. 15 meeting that COP members be present. He said Wednesday that members had been contacted and asked to attend. Not one showed up.”

Several COP members accused Eldridge of telling the Press to write the above. He did not.

Eldridge said later Monday that Rutherford had called Willie Shrewsbury, the county’s purchasing agent.

“He told Rutherford what had happened at the Jan. 15 meeting and that the Budget Committee wanted COP members and contractor Hiram Rash to be there. I assumed they would be there. I should not have assumed. There was not an email from my office to those committee members telling them the meeting was being held.

“Last Wednesday’s meeting (Jan. 22) was a continuation of a publicly advertised meeting. The item being considered came at their request. For whatever reason, no one from that committee appeared. They know the process. They know they could have been present.”

Waiting on a message machine back at the Press was Rutherford’s unsolicited comment.

“I may represent the commission on several issues, but he’s the Budget Committee chairman, and it’s his responsibility,” he said. “He did not contact me to notify committee members, and I did not notify them because I was not asked. The mayor has misinformed them, and they know it.”

Meanwhile, commissioners voted to amend a resolution to comply with a state mandate requiring Washington County/Johnson City EMS to assume the responsibility of unattended death investigations in the county’s rural areas.

Though the county already is in compliance, commissioners unanimously voted to have Eldridge draft a letter to stakeholders, including neighboring counties, East Tennessee State University and the Sheriff’s Office. The amended resolution calls for quick action by state legislators to ease the new costs and personnel required.

“This thing could escalate and be a major cost for rural counties,” said Keith Bowers, Washington County interim attorney.

Eldridge said the county did 65 autopsies last year and that number could double under the new rule handed down by the state medical examiner’s office.

Commissioners also approved a resolution urging the General Assembly to introduce the “Officer Gary Daugherty Act.” State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, is expected to introduce a bill to amend state law to strengthen penalties against people evading arrest.

Daugherty, who was at the meeting, was severely injured in January 2012 while attempting to deploy a spike strip to stop a fleeing vehicle.

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