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Tomita looks at new title as chance to increase local communication

David Tomita has maintained equal representation as both a city and county commissioner, and he said being elected vice mayor of Johnson City is not going to tip the balance.
“My role has not changed; I just have a title,” he said last week.
Tomita was named vice mayor in a 3-2 vote during the Nov. 3 city commission meeting. He will complete the remainder of the term begun by Clayton Stout who moved into the mayor’s seat after Ralph Van Brocklin decided to step down from the position.
According to Tomita, both titles are ceremonial because the Johnson City charter established what is referred to as a weak mayor system. Rather than being elected by the citizens, commissioners choose one of their members to serve as mayor, and another as vice mayor who will act in the absence of the mayor.
In addition, the day-to-day operations of the government are handled by the city manager, and the mayor is limited in power and authority. Tomita said the mayor has input on the meeting agenda, but can’t do anything with out a three-member majority vote.
And as far as countering any perception that his role as vice mayor will create a bias, Tomita said, “It’s up to me to show by my words and actions.”
Serving in a dual role makes him more effective, according to Tomita. “I know the unintended consequences on both sides,” he said. “It came with the territory, but I think it’s a strength for the commissions.”
However, Tomita believes a stronger partnership between the two governments is essential for success. “It can’t be a zero sum game; nobody needs to lose,” he said. “If the county doesn’t succeed, the city won’t; and if the city doesn’t succeed, the county won’t.”
Consolidation of government was a discussion at one of the workshops held during the National League of Cities Conference attended by Tomita and fellow commissioner Jeff Banyas at the beginning of the month.
“It’s not going to happen on the first day, but there are very clear areas where we could work together,” he said.
Starting the conversation is the first step, said Tomita, who referred to the recently formed Johnson City/Washington County Education Task Force as a good example. The group is exploring the possibility of a consolidated school system.
“Katie Baker was a good person to get the conversation going because she has educational credibility, and rather than using the word consolidation, she said collaboration,” Tomita noted. “You have to take it slowly.”
Determining what kind of efficiencies can be found is the goal, he said. “If Watauga is driving all the way through Johnson City, maybe let them go to city schools.”
Potential for partnerships also exists with EMS, fire and public safety services, Tomita said. “If we can get with a task force to find efficiencies that make sense, it will spill over into other areas.”
The challenge comes from a lack of communication, he believes, which is currently hampering the discussion of whether a joint or separate radio system should be pursued.
Tomita said one idea is paying for the regular fire department’s radios and if the cost could be reduced, adding the volunteer fire departments.
“The best system is going to be a consolidated user that would offer a direct line if Sulphur Springs needs to talk to Johnson City,” he said.
While overcoming the communication barrier between the two governments won’t be easy, Tomita is sure the goal can be achieved. “This is an opportunity for dialogue we’ve never had, but it won’t change overnight,” he said. “You have to get buy-in from folks.”
Once that is accomplished, everyone will benefit.
“It’s not us versus them where there’s more ego than practicality,” he said. “The troops can talk.”
Tomita’s term on both boards will expire in 2018, but he can’t predict what will happen regarding another run for either position. “I never try to look past where I am now,” he said.