When former Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin unexpectedly died in September halfway through his second term on the Commission, the four remaining commissioners were left to choose a successor — not for a brief interim appointment but for a two-year term.
The Charter formerly had provisions that allowed for a special election in such an event, but in 2014, the Charter was amended to change the process for choosing a successor. The state’s qualifying and advertising deadlines did not allow time to get the Commission post on the November ballot, unlike the similar vacancy already on ballot for the city’s Board of Education.
So the new commissioner could not be elected by the people of Johnson City.
Commissioners awkwardly found themselves having to do what should have been the voters’ duty. Mayor David Tomita, whose tenure is ending with Tuesday’s election, and Commissioner Todd Fowler wanted to simply make an appointment without a public process. They ultimately acquiesced to Vice Mayor Jenny Brock and Commissioner Joe Wise’s preference to hear from citizens interested in completing the term.
As we stated Oct. 21, the result was just fine. Dr. Larry Calhoun, dean emeritus of East Tennessee State University’s Gatton College of Pharmacy, received a 4-0 vote to fill the slot from field of nine candidates. His record of service in health care made him a seemingly riskless, logical choice. We have no doubt that Calhoun will admirably serve for the next two years.
Do not mistake this opinion as a concern about Calhoun’s leadership potential.
Certainly there are costs incurred with special elections, but two years is too long for an appointed role, especially when the position is one of only five charged with leading the entire city. Citizens deserve more of a voice in public leadership over a long haul.
Johnson City should again revise the Charter to accomplish two things: allowing for special elections and limiting the amount of time an elected position can be filled by appointment. A reasonable limit might be 90 days — certainly no longer than six months.