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POWER STRUGGLE: Commissioners trying to change state law to lessen mayor’s authority, Eldridge not happy

Continued disagreement over proposed changes to the Regional Planning Commission’s structure led Washington County commissioners to approve requesting a change in state law during last week’s commission meeting.
Commissioner Gearld Sparks made a motion to approve a resolution to support amending Tennessee Code Annoted Section 13-3-101 regarding the appointment of members of the Regional Planning Commission. The motion was seconded by Commissioner Alpha Bridger.
County Attorney John Rambo said Sparks had asked him to prepare the resolution.
“As you know, the planning commission is appointed by the mayor. The question (I was asked) is could a private act be adopted (so the commission chair makes appointments),” Rambo said.
State law would not allow a private act, he noted.
“The second question (asked) is can the state law be changed,” Rambo said.
The resolution supports a change in the state law to allow local legislative bodies to determine whether the county mayor or the chair of the county legislative body shall nominate people to serve on the Regional Planning Commission.
The resolution also asks members of the General Assembly representing Washington County to request amendments to House Bill 646 and Senate Bill 790 to effect the change.
But Rambo said neither bill relates to the appointment of planning commission members.
Because the resolution was not on the agenda and was presented at the meeting, a motion to suspend the rules was needed to allow discussion. That motion was made by Commissioner Pat Wolfe and seconded by Commissioner Sam Phillips.
“I have concerns about directing the state legislature,” Commissioner Mitch Meredith said. “I’m sure Commissioner Sparks has thought it through, but this has not been (brought) through a committee.”
Meredith asked Sparks to give an explanation for his introduction of the resolution.
“I think the board would be better served,” Sparks said.
When asked to elaborate, Sparks said he would like to have representatives from each of the four blocks in the county whom residents could approach about issues they want taken to the Regional Planning Commission.
“What was proposed to us was to cut to five members,” Sparks said, a move he thinks would hurt people in rural areas.
“So the size is the issue, or who’s appointed?” Meredith asked. “Have we gotten a recommendation on the size from the Rules Committee?”
Mayor Dan Eldridge has proposed cutting the number of members from 15 to nine, with four seats held by county commissioners and five held by community members with expertise in specific disciplines related to county zoning and subdivision regulations.
All of the community members had expired terms, and Eldridge appointed five people to those spots in the resolution reviewed by commissioners in February.
The resolution was referred to the Rules Committee for a recommendation on the number of members, and no action was taken on the proposed appointees.
A called meeting of the Rules Committee was set for March 11, rescheduled to March 14, then canceled by Commissioner Lee Chase due to lack of a quorum when Commissioners Mark Ferguson, Roger Nave and Sparks failed to show up.
“This is clearly nothing but a retaliation against me for recommendations I made last month for open seats,” Eldridge said of the request to change state law. “I cannot comprehend this commission would stoop to such a self-serving level as to request that a state law be changed.”
Sparks called for a vote, but Commissioner David Tomita argued the discussion should be allowed to continue before a vote was taken.
“My concern is this is very hasty,” Commissioner Ethan Flynn said, reminding members they had suspended the rules and were considering passing a resolution they had never seen before the meeting. “This is what gives this commission a bad name.”
Commissioner Ken Lyon said he was one of the planning commission members asked to step down in order to reduce the size of the body.
“I talked to the mayor, and it made sense,” he said. “He’s a good man trying to do a good job, and there are 16 of you who vote down anything he tries.”
The motion passed 17-7.
“So we’re proposing state law be changed for every county in the state,” Tomita commented in disbelief.
Eldridge said the action is unnecessary since the commission already, by law, is allowed to reject the mayor’s recommended appointees and force him to come up with a list of people acceptable to the governing body.
“Rather than responding with the remedy that is available to them, which is to reject my (proposal), they are trying to change the law,” he said. “The arrogance of that is overwhelming.”
While Eldridge feels certain the votes were in-hand before the meeting began, he said more than one commissioner approached him after the meeting and said they never should have voted in favor of the request to change the state law.
“My comment to them was, ‘You’re right, you messed up,”’ Eldridge said.
Regardless of motive, Eldridge said this is not the kind of request you send to Nashville.
“To respond in such fashion is not good for Washington County,” he said.