Once again today I sing the praises of the Washington County Commission, not for everything they did this week, but for one thing in particular. They eschewed petty politics and grandstanding, both long-held traditions of past commissions.
To fully understand what happened Monday night, we have to go back in time to 1957, when the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee passed a law requiring action by a full county commission to approve budget changes during the fiscal year. The law was put in place to ensure counties did not submit budgets they had no intent of following.
In 1991, the General Assembly realized it had created a bureaucratic morass in which every county was being forced to waste time and money getting full commission approval for very minor changes. If government was to be run like a business, the General Assembly asked, what business would make department heads wait for approval from the Board of Directors every time a secretary needed to buy a $5 pack of Post-It Notes that wasn’t in the budget?
So, in the spirit of efficiency, the General Assembly adopted new provisions for the amendment of county operating budgets. The state allowed the county mayor to amend line items within a major category. Further, the state allowed budget committees to approve line item amendments.
This was all well and good, except for one thing. For reasons no one wants to talk about for fear of needlessly opening old political wounds, the 1991 provisions applied to 94 of Tennessee’s 95 counties. Washington County, to this day, is required to operate under the original 1957 statute.
On Oct. 27, 2014 the Washington County Commission, on a voice vote, approved Resolution 14-10-12, asking the local members of the legislative delegation to introducea bill to bring Washington County in line with the other 94 counties in Tennessee. Three county commissioners were absent for that vote. Commissioner Robbie Tester abstained. It is important to note that there were zero votes in opposition to the resolution.
On Nov. 5, the resolution was sent to State Senator Rusty Crowe and to State Representatives Matthew Hill and Micah Van Huss. The legislators introduced the bill and it began working its way through the committee structure in Nashville.
But on April 7, Van Huss pulled the bill, keeping the old bureaucracy in place for another year in Washington County. Van Huss told the (Jonesborough) Herald & Tribune in a copyrighted story by Karen Sells that he self-imposed a requirement that the county commission hold a roll call vote for the measure and that at least two-thirds of commissioners vote in the affirmative. Said Van Huss to the Herald & Tribune, “I need to know the county’s leadership is behind it.”
When one considers that there were zero votes in opposition to the measure on a voice vote, the fact that the county’s leadership was behind it was never in doubt. So while his published explanation of intent doesn’t hold water, Van Huss’ motivations remain his own.
One thing is certain: in pulling the bill, Van Huss has institutionalized for another year the exact kind of inefficient, wasteful policy that makes people hate government to begin with.
Back in Jonesborough, the Budget Committee responded to Van Huss’ perceived treachery by drafting a letter of complaint to House Speaker Beth Harwell, Governor Bill Haslam and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey.
The full commission Monday decided against sending the letter. The legislative session has ended. Sending the letter would have done no good, and would only have served to deepen the antagonism on both sides.
The commission decided to bury the hatchet. Now I’m pretty sure no one will forget where that hatchet is buried, but for now, the commission has chosen to spend its time and effort working on the things it can change, as opposed to carping about things that, at least until 2016, it can’t.