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Mayor, commissioners go at it during called committee meeting

Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge butted heads with members of the County-Owned Property Committee last week during a called meeting to address the use of space at the county office building.
The 45-minute meeting included accusations that a commissioner is seeking an investigation of the mayor by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation as well as claims that local newspapers are exaggerating when it comes to the relationship between Eldridge and the commission.
County Commissioner Roger Nave requested the meeting after reportedly receiving calls from constituents regarding an organization unaffiliated with the county operating out of the county office building.
“The Appalachian Resource Conservation and Development Council is who we’re talking about here,” Eldridge explained at the start of the Nov. 14 meeting. “They manage grants in the eight counties of East Tennessee. They lost their federal funding a few weeks ago, and as a result, the director was reassigned to a job in Sullivan County and they couldn’t pay the rent at the building they were in.”
According to Eldridge, former director Roy Settle approached him looking for any available office space to use temporarily in order to keep the organization from having to leave Washington County.
“He said otherwise they would have to shut down and there would be no more grant programs. I said, ‘Well, you know, we’ve got an empty office in this building,’” Eldridge said. “There’s no agreement with them. They needed a place to land in a hurry. I told them it was fine if they wanted to use that office part time until they find something else or until we move across the street in a couple of months.
“I hate to say it, but that’s all there is to it. There wasn’t any grand scheme to defraud the taxpayers of this county. And there was no grand scheme to usurp the authority of this commission.”
According to Eldridge, the organization’s occupancy of the office on a part-time basis is temporary and will end by Dec. 31.
“Recognizing this was an arrangement that was going to be in place for just a few weeks, I saw no reason to prevent them from locating there. I did it because of the benefit it has to Washington County. There was no selfish intent whatsoever,” Eldridge said. “Because of this, we are able to maintain grant services associated with this agency.”
Committee members took issue with Eldridge making the decision, saying the county commission has the only authority to approve occupancy of a county-owned property.
Eldridge argued Commissioner Mark Ferguson had ulterior motives in calling the move into question.
“You know what I’ve heard around the courthouse?” Eldridge asked. “I’ve heard that this is Mark Ferguson’s opportunity to initiate a TBI investigation against the mayor in order to get me prosecuted and thrown out of office so he can be appointed mayor.”
Later, Eldridge continued by saying, “Every opportunity Mark gets to poke his finger in my eye, he does.”
Ferguson adamantly denied the accusations, saying he has no interest in becoming the county mayor.
“I’m not your enemy. I’m your coworker,” Ferguson told Eldridge. “I’m not here to put you on trial or anything, but it takes all of us to run the county.”
Ferguson said he had intended on simply asking Eldridge to get together with County Attorney John Rambo to put something on paper regarding the temporary arrangement with the Appalachian RC&D Council, but after hearing the mayor’s comments, he changed his mind.
“Every county commission meeting has a section called, ‘The Mayor’s Report.’ We never hear nothing from you,” Ferguson said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if you brief the commission on what you’ve been doing — at least fill us in on what you are doing?”
County Commissioner Doyle Cloyd agreed.
“As commissioners, I don’t believe any of us could go out here and lease a place or tell somebody they could move in without coming and asking for it,” Cloyd said. “Don’t you think you ought to have brought that before the full commission? That bothers me some. We ought to be advised about what is going on.”
Commissioner Alpha Bridger said the issue is a communication problem.
“I think we’d rather be over-informed than under-informed. The roof would not have fallen in if you just sent us an email. That would have taken 15 seconds,” she said. “We could talk about this all day, but the fact of the matter is, we’re not communicating.”
In the end, the committee agreed to have Rambo request a letter from the Appalachian RC&D Council stating the organization would be out of the office space by the end of the year.
During the meeting, committee members questioned local media coverage of county government, claiming articles in local newspapers were exaggerated and slanted.
Cloyd even suggested Eldridge had somebody writing stories for the newspapers.
“Who is writing that for you?” he asked the mayor. “It’s in the paper.”
Bridger questioned some of the things she read in a newspaper, asking Eldridge why he was commenting on possible ways to spend money yet to come into the county coffers.
“I’m sorry folks; I call it like I see it,” Eldridge said of his comments in the article.
Bridger quickly quipped, “Maybe you shouldn’t call it so often.”