By Scott Robertson
When David Tomita ran for a seat on Johnson City’s Board of Commissioners while already holding a seat on the Washington County Commission, the question of conflict of interest was raised. What would Tomita do if and when the county’s and city’s interests were to conflict? Voters were satisfied with his answers, and for the better part of the last year, Tomita has held a seat on both commissions.
Now, with the May 3 filing of a lawsuit in which the county school system is plaintiff and the city of Johnson City is the defendant, Tomita faces a situation in which Johnson City and Washington County are in clear and well-defined conflict.
Tomita says that though the governments are in conflict, he is not.
“It’s not a conflict of interest,” he says. “The biggest reason is that neither the city commission nor the county commission is going to decide this. We’re not. A judge will decide. It’s not my opinion that counts.”
Chancery Court summonses were issued to Denis “Pete” Peterson, Johnson City manager, and Ralph Van Brocklin, city mayor, May 5. The county’s suit states that the city has failed to pay to the county schools a portion of the “tax on alcoholic beverages to be consumed on the premise” and asks that the city be forced to pay that amount (around $3.4 million, including interest) and be made to continue making payments in the future. Peterson has stated in the past that the law does not demand such payments be made.
Johnson City has 30 days from receipt of summons to respond to the suit, and a countersuit is possible.
Tomita takes no side in the argument, saying, “It’s a vaguely written law, as are many state laws. You can form it to suit whatever opinion you have.”
Regardless, says Tomita, the matter is out of the politicians’ hands now that it’s into the court’s. “The court is being asked to interpret that law and whatever the decision is, we’ll follow it. The city will follow that decision. The school board will follow that decision. It’s very simple.”
Further, he says, there’s no point in anyone on either side harboring political ill will toward the other. “Anybody with fiduciary responsibility would have done the same thing the school board did in the same circumstances. I guarantee you. The city school board would have done the same thing. The city commission would have. The county commission would have. It is a big deal. It’s a lot of money. It’s unfortunate the taxpayers will pick up the bill on either side.”
While it’s likely that some individuals on both sides will play up the conflict for their own short-term gain, Tomita says that in the long run, the city and county governments need to remember they remain obligated to work together for the long-term benefit of their citizens, regardless of the outcome of this case.
“I just hope we can work it out like good neighbors, Tomita says. “I’d like to think we can.”