The Washington County Commission on Monday voted 17-7 in a surprising move to pull County Mayor Dan Eldridge’s legal authority to appoint members to the county’s Regional Planning Commission.
Though the measure passed after rules were suspended and plenty of agitation and discomfort surfaced, it remains to be seen what weight it carries.
On Feb. 25, commissioners approved Eldridge’s recommended five professional appointees to what was intended to be a reorganized and downsized Planning Commission. However, commissioners put the brakes on a reduced membership at that time, sending the matter to the Rules Committee.
On March 14, only Rules Committee member Lee Chase and County Attorney John Rambo showed up at that scheduled committee meeting, nixing any discussion or decision due to lack of a quorum.
Enter Commissioner Gearld Sparks, Rules Committee member, who unexpectedly introduced the resolution Monday asking for support to amend state statute and give not only Washington County but all Tennessee counties the option to give the commission chairman the authority to appoint Planning Commission members.
Commission Chairman Greg Matherly was absent Monday night.
Eldridge rose from his seat.
“Clearly, this is nothing but retaliation against me,” he said, as the mumbling and shuffling in chambers began. “What’s surprising to me is that commissioners would stoop to asking that state law be changed. We don’t always agree. But to the extent that you ask the law be changed statewide?”
The resolution requests legislators representing the county to “amend” HB 646 and SB 790 “to effect this change.”
Rambo told commissioners there is proposed legislation regarding planning commissions, but it does not address appointees or the number of members.
“All the bill addresses is housekeeping,” he said.
Ken Lyon, who voluntarily stepped down from the Planning Commission more than a month ago after noting the desired changes, let out a gasp, threw his hands in the air and shook his head from side-to-side in disbelief immediately after the vote.
“I stepped down, and now 16 or 17 of you just sit there and try to do away with what this good man (Eldridge) does?”
Commissioner and Rules Committee member Mark Ferguson spoke, reminding everyone that commissioners had decided to let the Rules Committee take the ball.
“All this does is change the appointments from the mayor to the chairman,” he said.
A handful of commissioners were shaking their heads, including Ethan Flynn.
“We have never seen this resolution, but two-thirds of us suspended the rules to discuss it? It’s embarrassing.”
Eldridge has said there is a need for the Planning Commission to be comprised of members with more expertise in these fields and that some builders and developers have the perception that burdensome regulations related to permitting may be “politically motivated.”
Two seats on the Planning Commission were vacated when Joe Corso died and when Lyon stepped down. That left four county commissioners on the Planning Commission whose terms expire in 2014: Alpha Bridger, Mark Larkey, Skip Oldham and Sparks.
The sparks, no pun intended, returned when a resolution supporting a House and Senate bill that would enact the Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Act failed in a 12-12 deadlock. The bills provide choice and opportunity through school vouchers to low-income students in the bottom 5 percent of schools in overall achievement.
“Wealthy parents can take students out of those schools; poor parents can’t,” Flynn said.
Several commissioners asked Director of Schools Ron Dykes to step to the podium.
“The school board passed a resolution in opposition to this, and I’m opposed to vouchers,” he said.
Flynn questioned his stance.
“We are taking the philosophical stand that public funds should not be used for private institutions,” said Dykes.
Flynn has shown particular concern that commissioners, educators and members of the public may be unnecessarily fearful about the proposed legislation. Flynn said the program does not include local education dollars and does not affect Washington County, because it does not have schools performing in the bottom 5 percent — which the plan specifically targets.
However, enough commissioners were concerned with the “what if” factor regarding future loss of revenue to county schools to halt support.
Commissioners also tentatively agreed to hire a third-party risk and safety specialist to assess each county school before a final decision is made to hire additional school resource officers.
An estimated $84,000 would be withdrawn from the county’s general fund to pay for the assessment, which according the resolution is merely an on-paper “concept” supported by commissioners at this point. The resolution authorizes Eldridge to submit to Dykes and the Board of Education a detailed proposal of the assessments.
In other business, commissioners appointed Phyllis Corso to fill the seat left vacant in January when her husband, Joe Corso, died. Her term ends Aug. 31, 2014.