What do the candidates think? Q&A with the 5 Johnson City Commission hopefuls

Zach Vance • Updated Oct 12, 2018 at 11:28 PM

Johnson City voters will select at least one new commissioner out of a five-candidate field in November.

Two seats will be up for grabs and only one incumbent is seeking another four-year term, Vice Mayor Jenny Brock. Mayor David Tomita opted against running for reelection.

In addition to Brock, the other candidates on the ballot include: Johnson City Board of Education member John Hunter, perennial candidate William “Bud” Hill Jr., East Tennessee State University student David Adams and Gray resident Jeff Clark.

All five have agreed to participate in an Oct. 23 candidate forum at Memorial Park Community Center. The public is invited to attend. The forum will start at 5 p.m. and last until 7 p.m. The first hour will feature the Johnson City Board of Education candidates and the second hour will be dedicated to getting to know the commission candidates.

•  How would you describe your governing philosophy? 

David Adams: I believe the role of a City Commissioner is a truly unique role. Everybody knows commissioners have a vital role in budget approval, appointing leadership, et cetera, but I believe the most important role is one that isn’t found in the Charter or City Code. As the only publicly elected part of city government (aside from the School Board), Commissioners are the only means by which voters – residents - can effectively voice their opinion. Perhaps this is just my young age showing, but I prefer a hands-on leadership style – commissioners should actively serve as the bridge between the community and bureaucracy.

Jenny Brock: My governing philosophy and style is that of a non-partisan Trustee. It is to oversee the well-being of the city and make necessary decisions to solve today’s problems — not kick the can down the road. It is to govern from a core set of ethical principles.

Jeff Clark: I believe in a compassionate, service-oriented government that listens to all citizens regardless of stature.

William “Bud” Hill, Jr.: My governing philosophy is to listen, learn, ask questions, investigate and wisely with some common sense, implement by delegation. 

John Hunter: My background and experience as the CEO of a financial institution, along with my service on the Johnson City School Board, the Regional Planning Commission and various boards has instilled in me a philosophy with three key components: Accountability, Collaboration, & Communication.

•  What is the most pressing issue facing the City of Johnson City at this time? 

Adams: The most pressing issue we face as a city is brain drain – the loss of professional talent due to few job prospects. The business development happening in Johnson City today is a great thing, but it’s not the right type of development to ensure long term, stable growth. If we don’t take the necessary steps now to retain talent and foster high-paying tech-oriented jobs, we may eventually run out of retirees to fill our economic gas can.

Brock: Johnson City/Washington County/and the region is projected to grow at less than 1.5 percent in the foreseeable future. This, in addition to a low number of younger people staying or moving to our area impacts having a qualified work-ready workforce to support the growth of business. We must make innovative investments in our city to promote growth, develop a qualified workforce and recruit new businesses. Our investment in downtown redevelopment, improved recreational and outdoor activities and high speed broadband (BrightRidge) are all features that are attractive for growth.

Clark: A lack of upward mobility for poor and lower middle-class citizens. The City’s economy depends upon a strong and growing middle-class, and without it we will only see more businesses shutter in the upcoming decade, as Tupelo Honey did.

Hill: Finding a replacement for one of our fallen leaders, and to also ramp up infrastructural needs of our city, i.e. revisiting the flood control system, which failed miserably during heavy rainstorm, roads improvement. 

Hunter: Broadly speaking, expanding economic opportunity is at the forefront of my mind. We must continue focusing on key areas such as workforce development so that we have the proverbial “product” that businesses are looking for when relocating. In addition, Johnson City needs continued emphasis on quality of life & quality of job offerings to prevent the outflow of young adults.

•  How will you improve the relationship between Johnson City and Washington County? 

Adams: The County Commission recently downsized from 25 to 15 members – it’s no longer unreasonable to fit us all (City and County Commissions) at a table once every quarter. That is the first step to a better relationship – open, regular communication. We don’t have to delegate every facet of the city’s governing body to committees; sometimes it’s appropriate to lead from the front.

Brock: I will continue to build solid, respectful relationships and focus on collaborative projects that benefit both the City, County and the Region, thus promoting growth. Collaborative projects such as Aerospace Park at the airport will differentiate our region by creating high tech aerospace related jobs benefitting all cities and counties in the region.

Clark: I would work towards that goal by following through on our commitments to both communities and the citizens that live within them. I would also propose creating an official Neighboring Communities Liaison Office to further increase active participation in cooperation.

Hill: Try to impress on county leaders that when Johnson City thrives, so does the county, and to also find common grounds on joint ventures that would enhance the lives of all who lives and work within its borders.

Hunter: The challenge is to find ways to work together that permit us to fulfill our unique responsibilities while complementing each other’s work. We must look for ways we can make contributions to the greater good of our entire community without competing or interfering with each other. Working towards better understanding and redefining perceptions through improved communication.

•  What city services, if any, do you believe need to be improved or enhanced? 

Adams: Almost every city service has room to benefit from a technology overhaul. Usage of public transportation is low – imagine if we provided an interactive map instead of buried spreadsheets. Imagine if public works utilized virtual GIS technology instead of the expensive process of manually locating underground infrastructure.

Brock: We still have work to do to make Developmental Services (Planning, Building and Codes) more efficient, timely and customer focused. The goal is to be the “best city” with which to do business.

Clark: A real homeless plan that would find ways to make them productive members of the community, thru a jobs and housing program that would give free or low-cost living spaces and hire them on as city employees to fulfill jobs and services currently done by inmates. The City’s mass transit system is also in need of a serious update and expansion to make it useful for more people at more times of the day.

Hill: The city’s services that I think needs the most improvement or enhancement is the water and sewage department, mainly more staffing. We have a lot of turn of the century pipes that need to be removed and replaced, more environmentally friendly.

Hunter: The city has a large array of great services. We need to ensure that we are always able to maintain a certain level of services our residents have come to expect and strive to improve processes and implementation in all facets. I believe an overall review of city services by a third party could yield potential improvements in all areas that we may have not otherwise been aware possible.

•  What else should be done, on the city’s behalf, to ensure downtown Johnson City continues to prosper? 

Adams: We should complete the development package. Downtown will become a sustainable project when it is a place that professionals work, live, and play. We built the playground first – breweries and fun dining. We are building the “live” now with the John Sevier development project. The last piece of the puzzle is work – we need professional jobs strategically located downtown to fill the apartments and keep the playground active.

Brock: We must continue strategic and innovative infrastructure projects. West Walnut Street is an exciting redevelopment project that will transform the corridor between ETSU and downtown Johnson City. The private sector will find this corridor a prime location for investment. Likewise, we have other economic development districts in Johnson City we must support. We must continue storm water management projects in key watershed areas in the city.

Clark: The city needs to attract more diverse businesses outside of bars and restaurants to draw in more varied consumers. A location should also be designated for a centrally located public parking garage to help relieve the parking issues downtown, with easily visible signage denoting the locations of parking areas.

Hill: To be more family friendly oriented, by making downtown a place once again a place of wonderment, with an emphasis of safety and well being to all who visits. 

Hunter: The city has made great efforts to revitalize downtown (flood mitigation efforts, TIF, task forces, etc). From my perspective, the city must remain aware and recognize ways in which it can continue to facilitate business growth and innovation. Building relationships with existing companies, assisting them in solving problems, and keeping track of data so that we understand and can support positive trends. This should be a citywide initiative, not just held to downtown solely.

•  In your opinion, what role should the city have in economic development projects, considering the city currently owns several downtown properties including the John Sevier Center and the former Sears/Wollsworth buildings? 

Adams: The city must continue to have a position of authority in economic development projects – they are the most powerful tools for business recruitment. That said, the city must learn that it’s wasteful to swim upstream. We must take care not to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize businesses that add little long-term value, and we shouldn’t be a piggy bank for former board members’ private ventures. We must use our development assets as originally intended - to make meaningful connections that add to our long-term growth goals.

Brock: The city is actively working to sell the city-owned downtown properties to private retail developers. This will spur development on the east end of Main Street, thus expanding the downtown redevelopment footprint. The city does not own the John Sevier. The Johnson City Development Authority (JCDA) is exploring acquiring the property which is currently for sale.

Clark: The City’s role should be in ensuring access to the downtown business community for all potential small business owners and not just those with large investments. The City also needs to keep in mind that when the downtown economic zone is expanded, that it shouldn’t just thoughtlessly throw people out of their homes just for the sake of expansion.

Hill: The city should be the first and foremost entity involved in economic development as a whole, without tax infusion to the city, all city services to its community would cease to exist. 

Hunter: The city should seek out opportunities that improve the economic well-being and quality of life for our community. Facilitating growth and fostering a stable tax base helps keep tax rates low. At times, that requires the acquisition of real property, in other scenarios the city should play role of facilitator, and in other situations, we should be a collaborative partner. The city must be proactive, yet selective and prudent.

•  What type of infrastructure improvements do you believe should be prioritized? 

Adams: Fiber. Fiber. Fiber. A thousand times, fiber. The city should explore ways to assist BrightRidge in improving its fiber timeline. Technology is the vehicle for economic development in our region, and fiber is the rail on which it travels. A 10Gbps network underneath our city positions us to be a 21st century ‘railway town.’

Brock: N/A

Clark: The focus should be drawn to the neighborhoods with roads that need paving and lights and to business centers outside of downtown to help strongly diversify the city’s economy and growth, areas such as those on the outskirts of the city limits where services still haven’t caught up to city expansion and those that have long been left behind closer to the City center.

Hill: Storm water improvements will always be first and foremost in my opinion. We cannot continue to have downtown businesses flooded after each and every rain event. Why not just open up the many waterways that plagues downtown into a waterway that enhances the beauty of the area. 

Hunter: I think all improvements should be prioritized in relation to need and our budgetary constraints. More importantly, we need to be clear as to how we prioritize. Safety, economic development, etc should be considerations. As a member of the school board, I know there have been safety concerns for children walking to buses where there are no sidewalks. These areas should be examples of top priority.

•  In your view, what is the most essential duty of the city government? 

Adams: The most essential duty of city government is to maximize service offerings while minimizing cost. All other roles and functions derive from this basic understanding. City leadership should always treat service reductions and tax increases as measures of very last resort, not measures of convenience. Johnson City has done a great job of holding to this duty – our property taxes are the least of the Tri-Cities, and 81% of residents describe city services as “excellent” or “good” (only 4% rate service offerings as “poor”). It’s important that we elect a body that will continue this trend of responsible growth.

Brock: The city plans and develops infrastructure projects (water/sewer/roads, etc.) to support our citizens and promote opportunities for private sector investment. The city provides public safety protection for our citizens through professional fire and police departments. Other services include curbside garbage, re-cycle, brush and leaf pick-up and recreational activities such as parks, trails and athletic fields. The city creates the infrastructure to support business, and we serve as an economic driver for the state. The city provides essential city-wide services that individual citizens cannot provide for themselves. Citizens choose to live in our city because of the advanced infrastructure and services, outstanding schools and livable communities.

Clark: To coalesce the will of the governed into effective policy that benefits the most people, starting with those who are least advantaged.

Hill: To provide for its citizens, young and old, regardless of their means, a safe and healthy environment to live and work, business recruitment for economic stability and recreation to maintain mental and physical well being for all. 

Hunter: Our city government’s essential duty is to serve the needs of its residents. Focusing on infrastructure, safety, and basic services that provide a quality standard of living. Encourage local business growth that provides employment opportunities. Working through public and private partnerships to provide attractions, events, and cultural opportunities that are of interest to our community and others.

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