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Who runs the county?

A document being referred to as “the manifesto” outlines objectives Washington County commissioners want accomplished this year, raising the question of who actually runs the county.
Mayor Dan Eldridge said the list of objectives, titled Legislative Agenda for 2011-12 Fiscal Year, was presented to him after the Sept. 14 Budget Committee meeting.
Eldridge had stepped down as chairman of the commission the week before in order to have the power to veto the budget.
“They said ‘You’ve stepped down as chairman, we’d like to see more cooperation, and we think these will achieve that,’” Eldridge said, referring to the visit from County Attorney John Rambo and commissioners Greg Matherly and Gerald Sparks.
“I was very surprised when I got it, and I would be surprised if they had expected me to respond,” Eldridge said.
Surprise and anger were the responses from some of the other commissioners when they learned the document had been drafted, according to Eldridge and the commissioner who provided a copy to the Herald & Tribune.
Matherly said he had not seen the legislative agenda before the meeting with Eldridge.
“The Johnson City Press got it wrong,” Matherly said of an article that claimed he was one of the presenters of the agenda.
“It was given to me and the mayor at the same time. I had asked John (Rambo) to try to pull some things together, and he took the ball and ran with it. He talked to the commissioners and compiled some of the concerns.”
Rambo said three or four commissioners called or came to see him after Eldridge stepped down as chair.
“There has been quite a bit of acrimony,” Rambo said. “They said ‘The relationship is bad (between the mayor and the commission). Can you see if there is something that can be done?’ I tried to write down things from the last year, under discussion now, or coming up.”
Rambo then presented the list to Eldridge and Matherly.
“I said, ‘If you can work together, I think a lot of the acrimony will die down and we can get back on track,’” he said.
Breaking the logjam seemed to be in the best interest of the county, according to Rambo.
“Then we can try to get something done without everything being a bloodbath,” he said.
Though there were items included in the legislative agenda he did not agree with, Matherly said he thought it was important to reach some kind of starting point.
But no action was taken on the agenda.
“I was still the vice chair during that time,” he said. “No firm decision was made, and it died out after that.”
Eldridge said he didn’t agree with the agenda, and hasn’t had a conversation about it since.
While the agenda may never have been formally introduced, several items reveal a potential lack of understanding in the role commissioners play when it comes to county operations.
Washington County operates under a constitutional form of government. The mayor serves as the county executive and the administrative head of the county, while the commissioners make up the legislative body.
“The executive branch is responsible for running the government,” Eldridge said.
There is a specific role for the legislative body also, he said, but it is not operations.
“The biggest issue is how they responded to the budget,” Eldridge said. “If they weren’t satisfied with the budget as presented by the Budget Committee, they should have told the Budget Committee to go back and make the cuts. It would have been much more effective. They could have even suggested specific departments to look at.”
Eldridge said instead cuts were made by commissioners with complete disregard to their implications and impact.
“Why can’t we stay focused?” Eldridge asked. “I’ve never worked with a group that’s so back and forth.”
Eldridge said the commission needs to keep the big picture in mind and take time to study the implications of any action before making a decision.
“That’s where we have to get to,” he said. “I’m not alone in that opinion.”
The legislative agenda listed commissioners Eldridge was to propose for membership to this year’s Budget Committee, and indicated the commission would then vote approval.
Another item on the agenda is the creation of a position to replace the former communications director. The legislative agenda states: The mayor and county commission chair will draft a job description, which will be approved by the county commission.
“That’s never been done before,” Eldridge said.
Directions on how the county archivist will be hired are also included, but, again, Eldridge said that is not the role of the legislative body.
“We have a Public Records Commission, they’re not a committee,” he said. “A state statute defines how the Public Records Commission operates, and we’re going to follow it.
“We’re going to search for the most qualified candidate, and we’re going to search all over the state.
“It is not political, and it can’t be made political. It’s way too important.”
The legislative agenda also orders the reinstatement of security constables in the Johnson City office of the County Clerk and Trustee, which was recently approved; the reorganization of the Zoning Administrator’s Office now under consideration; and a private act to create the position of county attorney.
Another objective listed is the formation of a Mayor-Commission Committee to report on all unanswered questions on the Economic Development Board and Council. The agenda lists members of the committee as the mayor, the county attorney, Commissioner Mark Ferguson, the county commission chair, and former mayor George Jaynes.
Despite the manifesto’s demands, Eldridge says he does not see it as a power struggle.
“There is a contingent who wants to be in charge, they have made that evident, but I see it more as an opportunity for both sides to come back in line with how county government is organized,” he said.
“I would really like to see the county commission get focused on the opportunities we have in Washington County, and not on petty politics.”
Eldridge said he knows there will be some resistance to change as commissioners work through the issues, but he believes the current situation will improve and Washington County residents will benefit.
“It’s part of a process, but we’re going to get there. I’m not in any way discouraged. I think we have so much going for Washington County, and that’s what motivates and excites me,” he said.
“We just need time, and not everyone will get on board. Being in business for 30 years has taught me that folks will always disagree.”