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Wolfe casts deciding vote in issue of compensation for BMA members

Following much discussion and disagreement, Mayor Kelly Wolfe cast the deciding vote to approve the proposed revisions to the Town Charter during the Feb. 14 meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
The Town’s Charter with the State of Tennessee governs the way Jonesborough operates and its authority. In December, Wolfe appointed a committee made up of Town Attorney Jim Wheeler, County Attorney John Rambo and Alderman Chuck Vest to review the document and offer suggestions for improvement and clarification.
Recommendations were presented during the Feb. 8 public hearing of the BMA. The committee met again on Feb. 11 to discuss input from the meeting and finalize the changes.
While most of the revisions include updating titles and correcting outdated language, dissension expressed among members during the Feb. 8 public hearing regarding BMA compensation continued during the meeting on Monday.
A nominal compensation for BMA members was proposed because both town and county attorneys think they deserve it, according to Wheeler.
If finalized, the mayor and aldermen will each receive $100 per month for attendance at one board meeting and one committee meeting. If two or more committee meetings are attended, in addition to the monthly board meeting, the member will receive $200 for the month.
While Wheeler said most municipalities do provide some form of compensation, not all aldermen were sold on the idea.
“I was proud of Jonesborough for not offering any kind of payment,” Alderman Terry Countermine said during the Feb. 8 public hearing. “Especially in this economic time, I think it sends a bad message.”
At Monday’s meeting, Countermine said he has since spoken with 20 of his constituents who unanimously agree compensation for the BMA is wrong.
“I did a lot of soul searching, and I can’t vote for it,” he said.
Wolfe said it would be a waste to send the document to Nashville for approval, knowing it will never pass the needed two-thirds majority vote of the BMA, but appealed to Countermine to at least acknowledge the importance of other improvements proposed to the Town Charter.
“In politics, you can’t go into something expecting to get 100 percent of what you want,” Wolfe said, adding he is also making compromises among the changes.
Countermine expressed his concern that compensation levels could be abused by future BMA members, but Wolfe said it is unlikely.
The compensation proposed in the Town Charter can only be changed with an act through the State Legislature, according to Wolfe.
“This is a very high hurdle for future boards to overcome,” he said. “With these restrictions in place, we would not see abuse.”
Alderman Jerome Fitzgerald re-stated his opinion during the Feb. 14 meeting that he thinks service as an alderman should be voluntary.
“I’ve got a problem with this, and I’m not going to take it,” he said.
Wheeler said another reason he and Rambo proposed compensation is to offer assistance to someone who might not otherwise run due to the cost of campaigning. Wolfe agreed.
“In my opinion, we are reducing a potential hurdle to participation because it is expensive to run for public office,” Wolfe said. “The compensation may help them justify the cost in their mind.”
Vest noted the compensation is also designed to encourage participation by the aldermen and ensure quality members.
“If an alderman only goes to the monthly meeting, they get no money,” he said.
In addition, compensation will ensure good candidates in the future, according to Vest.
“You get what you pay for. If you don’t get quality people, you get million dollar mistakes,” Vest said, adding that this was his last term as an alderman.
Alderman Mary Gearhart said she is amazed at the amount of time she spends as an alderman, citing the hours she spends preparing for meetings and the many trips she made for the sewer project as examples.
“That’s time I could be spending with friends,” she said. “My time is worth something, and I’m more than happy to accept this nominal amount.”
Wolfe said the proposed compensation is by no means equal to what is being put in by BMA members.
“If you’re running for $100 a month to do all the things we have to do every day as aldermen, you would have to be plain crazy,” he said.
Wolfe also made a point to say that BMA members currently have access to health benefits the same as town employees, a potential cost of $1,200 per month per member, but none of the BMA members accepts.
A change in the Charter says a BMA member would, in the future, pay the full premium, not just the employee portion.
Gearhart made the motion to accept the proposed Charter revisions. Vest seconded. Countermine and Fitzgerald voted against it. Wolfe broke the tie with his approval.
The resolution will now be sent to the Tennessee General Assembly with a request to amend the private act that charters the Town. Legislation passed by the General Assembly will be signed by the governor.
The BMA must vote to approve the legislation by a two-thirds majority within 120 days of its passage.
“While everyone did not agree, I have nothing but respect for the discussion between the aldermen today and how they presented their thoughts and viewpoints,” Wolfe said. “My hope is that we can pass the revised Charter and provide more good things for the town.”