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Former journalist wants commissioners reduced to three

Reducing the number of Washington County commissioners from 25 to three and changing their status to full-time county employees was suggested as a means to improve local government during the May 28 commission meeting.
Commission Chair Greg Matherly said he was contacted earlier that day by former Johnson City Press reporter James Brooks, who asked for a few minutes to speak during the meeting.
“I should probably title this a proposed resolution,” he said of the document he distributed to commissioners outlining his idea.
According to his plan, one commissioner would reside within the city limits of Johnson City and be elected by Johnson City voters. The other two commissioners would reside outside of the city limits of Johnson City, with one elected by county residents and one elected at large.
According to his proposal, “The office of county commissioner shall thus be considered a full-time job with salary and benefits commensurate to that of similar full-time county employees.”
Brooks said the current commission structure is a throwback to 19th century governance.
“This is a modest proposal to try to bring things up to date,” he said, referring to a plan that does away with commission districts.
Matherly said the proposal will be sent to the county’s Rules Committee for consideration.
“It just doesn’t strike me as a good model for government, and all I’m asking to do is bring it up to the 21st century,” Brooks said in a visit to the Herald & Tribune office two days later. “They kicked it to the Rules Committee where it will never be heard from again, but I want to put some pressure on the commission.”
Though he has not discussed his idea with any commissioners or community residents, Brooks said he is making himself available as a speaker for clubs and organizations to keep the issue in the forefront of people’s minds. He can be contacted at [email protected]
According to Brooks, he saw the problems of the “good old boy” network when he covered the Washington County Commission as a reporter 30 years ago.
“Some people go fishing when they retire, but as a journalist, I get to do things I couldn’t do before because I no longer have to sit on the sidelines,” he said.
His proposed structure is modeled after a three-member commission in Lynn County, Iowa, that he covered for a newspaper while living there several decades ago.
“These people came in every day and met all day,” he said, saying they were efficient as full-time employees.
Brooks thinks a Washington County commissioner’s salary should be comparable to that of an office holder. “Somewhere between $40,000-$50,000,” he said.
Brooks recommends the change commence with the 2014 election of county commissioners.
However, the proposed overhaul is currently illegal in Tennessee, which requires each county to have a minimum of nine commissioners.
A change in state law would have to be requested and approved before reducing the number below nine could even be considered.
In addition, County Attorney John Rambo said another change in state law would be needed to allow Washington County to change its number of commissioners outside of the 10-year sequence for county redistricting based on numbers from the most recent federal census.
The size of the Washington County commission was one of the first recommendations the 2011 Redistricting Committee had to make. Referencing commissioners as the county’s cheapest employees, in addition to residents’ objections to fewer representatives, the committee voted to recommend the number stay at 25 with little discussion.
Even the commissioners who had campaigned the year before with a promise to reduce the number if elected voted for the maximum allowed 25, saying additional support staff would have to be hired in their absence. The next vote on the county commission size will not come until the 2021 redistricting.
Yet another hurdle to Brooks’ plan would be the 1960s Supreme Court rulings on “one person, one vote” that require districts to be equal in population to comply with the 14th Amendment.
Rambo said Washington County’s current population is almost evenly split between those living within and outside of Johnson City’s limits. “It would not be equal representation to have one person from the city and two from the county,” he said.