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Committee discusses action to fill open seat

Whether Washington County’s legislative body needs a formal process for filling the vacancy when a commission seat becomes open during a term was debated during the March 17 meeting of the Rules Committee.
“My concern is, from what I understand, the process is to ask the spouse,” Commissioner Tom Krieger said, referring to the historical practice used in the case of commissioners who died while holding office. “The spouse may not be interested or qualified, and I think it should be open to anyone in the district.”
Krieger said taking nominations from the floor during a commission meeting can be awkward when the nominee is in the audience, and board members are required to vote on someone they may not know. He asked if an application process followed by a review and recommendation from a committee would be better.
Commission Chair Greg Matherly pointed out each commissioner would still have the opportunity to make one nomination.
“Even after the last interview for county attorney, I was asked if the floor would be open for nominations, and the answer was yes,” he said.
English law is the foundation of such a structure, according to Commissioner Joe Wise. “I think to the average citizen, it can be confusing to have a public notice and then the election seem like a foregone conclusion,” he said. “It’s as much about the process as the law.”
Wise said he would like the commission to explore the topic now rather than be faced with the urgency of having to fill an open seat.
“No matter what we have in place, we can’t change the law,” Matherly said, referring to strict guidelines outlined in Tennessee Code Annotated 5-1-104 regarding the number of days allowed to fill the vacancy.
Commissioner Danny Edens said offering the opportunity to the spouse first is not as much tradition as a matter of respect. Edens said his mother was given the option following the death of his father, Rick Edens, but was not interested.
“I called Pat Wolfe who was the other commissioner in the district, and he said he would nominate me but that other people could be nominated also,” he said.
Edens was appointed to the county commission in 2005 and chosen by the voters for a four-year term during the next election.
The length of service is important to note, according to Commissioner Bryan Davenport. “We have to remember it’s not for the remainder of the term, but only until the next general election,” he said. “If that person wanted to remain in office, he would have to run for the seat.”
Commissioner Lee Chase said he would not be interested in an interview process, but would be willing to consider some kind of process that would allow residents to express their interest.
That option is available now when the floor is opened to nominations, according to Matherly. Citizens in the audience can make a suggestion for a candidate to the commissioners, but a board member must then make a formal nomination in order for the person to be considered.
County resident Betty Ziesel asked why the current discussion was being held. “With all due respect, you have a procedure because you have the TCA that anyone can go and look at,” she said. “When you guys were elected, you weren’t vetted by a committee, so why would you consider it? I think a lot of constituents would be unhappy to take away something done by English law.”
Wise noted Krieger’s suggestion was made in an effort to clarify some ambiguity, not rewrite TCA guidelines. “Having just run, I think I was interviewed 800 times,” he added.
Davenport said he thought a formal process was unnecessary since the appointment would be made for an interim period that ends with the next election, but Commissioner Mitch Meredith said he did not see a downside in spelling out a section that could be included in the board’s rules of procedure.
Matherly pointed out more than one response will be needed to address different reasons for a vacancy, such as one that occurs as the result of a resignation.
County Attorney Tom Seeley will be invited to the next meeting to offer input.