While members of the Johnson City Board of Commissioners had their share of disagreements during last Thursday’s special called commission meeting, there was one thing they could all agree on.
When city commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin passed away unexpectedly while jogging along the Tweetsie Trail on Sept. 8, he left behind a trademark pair of cowboy boots that will never be filled.
“We’re trying to fill Ralph Van Brocklin’s spot,” said commissioner Todd Fowler. “That’s impossible.”
And yet, that is the job the remaining members of the commission have been given. The city charter used to contain a provision calling for a special election in the event of a vacancy, but the charter was amended in 2014, so the process of selecting a commissioner to serve the remaining two years of Van Brocklin’s term is now solely in the hands of the commission.
The task of creating a process to fill the vacant seat unveiled two schools of thought within the commission. Commissioner Joe Wise immediately championed the idea of opening the search up to the general public with hopes a successor could be named by the commission’s Oct. 18 meeting.
The gist of Wise’s argument was that conducting an open search for the next commissioner would create transparency, giving citizens an opportunity to follow the process every step of the way.
“The advantage to this is that the list of people who express interest becomes clear and available to everybody in the city,” Wise said. “The other advantage, in my view, is that I don’t know all 63,000 people who live in Johnson City, and I think there’s a distinct and real possibility that there could be somebody who would be a strong candidate that I might not yet know.”Citing a meeting she had with Wise and Fowler the Monday following Van Brocklin’s passing – a meeting mayor David Tomita was unable to attend – vice-mayor Jenny Brock agreed with Wise’s view that a thorough, transparent search was worth the effort.
“When the three of us came up with this last Monday night, we knew it was going to take some extra time from us,” Brock said. “I knew that when we were talking about it, and I’m certainly much more in favor of having more of an open and transparent process. I’m willing to put the time in, whatever time is needed to get to this decision, and I think it will be a better decision.”
Tomita and Fowler, however, were wary of the unintended consequences that may come with an open call for applications. Tomita argued that people might see the opportunity to get appointed to the commission as an easy way to kickstart his or her political career, which would lead to a flood of applications.
“Nobody wants to run for these seats,” Tomita said. “Everybody wants an appointment because that’s the path of least resistance. You don’t have to spend any money or any time. That’s great. But the ideal candidate is somebody we pull in here kicking and screaming, and they do it for two years and they step aside and they let the people elect the new person.”
Tomita added that opening up the process would be “busy work” at a time when the commission finds itself weighing several critical decisions.
“The ideal person for this particular position is somebody that’s got some stripes, somebody who’s been elected by the people before, somebody that has a shorter learning curve,” Tomita said.
“I don’t know all 63,000 people in Johnson City either, but I can think of only a handful that come to mind right off the bat that would fit that profile.”While Fowler agreed with Tomita’s assessment that the commission needed someone who was ready to hit the ground running, the commission eventually came to the agreement to accept letters of interest from the general public. Those interested in applying for the seat must submit a letter of interest to the City of Johnson City by Oct. 1 at 5 p.m.
Letters of interest must include a short discussion of why the applicant is interested in being appointed along with any qualifications and examples of participation in civic and public service. Applicants should also include their vision for the future of Johnson City.
Commissioners will hold interviews on Oct. 15 with the intention of making an appointment at the Oct. 18 meeting. Letters can be mailed to: City of Johnson City, Attn: Beth Greene, P.O. Box 2150, Johnson City TN, 37605. Letters can also be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions can be addressed to the city manager’s office by calling 423.434.6002.