By Jeff Keeling
Saying progress on some of his major goals is satisfactory, Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin will pass the
“I’ve had the opportunity while in the commission and in the mayor’s seat to see a lot of the things that I thought needed to be accomplished in this community at least moving forward, if not realized,” Van Brocklin told the News and Neighbor Sunday. He announced his decision to commissioners at a Monday agenda
Van Brocklin will remain on the commission.
Vice Mayor Clayton Stout is expected to move into the spot Van Brocklin has occupied since May 2013. Both were elected to the commission in 2011. All five sitting commissioners’ terms were extended by about 19 months when city voters approved moving municipal elections from April to November and having them coincide with state and national races.
Without that change, Van Brocklin, Stout and Jeff Banyas’ current terms would have expired in May, and an election would have been held in April, prompting a mayoral change even if Van Brocklin had run and won re-election. While under no obligation to step down before December 2016, after the next election, Van Brocklin already has served five months longer than the normal two years in the largely ceremonial post.
“I think we’re at a really good transition point for me to step down,” Van Brocklin said. “If I felt uncomfortable that we weren’t at that point, then I’d probably be less inclined to step down as mayor. I’m not leaving any real thorny issues on the table for the next mayor, which I would not want to do.”
One such “thorny issue,” in Van Brocklin’s view, would have existed had the commission not increased property taxes in June. A year after the body rejected an increase by a 3-2 vote, it reversed course, raising the rate by 25 cents per $100 of assessed value. Stout provided the swing vote, joining with Van Brocklin and Jenny Brock with Banyas and David Tomita opposed.
While the amount wasn’t as much as Van Brocklin would have liked, he believes it helped solidify the ability for continued city progress on, “the four pillars that I ran on.”
The first of those was community beautification, which he called, “an ongoing process that has not been realized to the point we want it to, but there’s been a lot of change made.”
Van Brocklin said he also stressed what he called, “the potentiation of economic development. I think over the last four and a half years we certainly have done some things that have facilitated growth. It’s important to continue to invest (tax revenues) in the community, and you need to look at the application of those tax dollars as an investment.”
One clear area where progress has boomed is what Van Brocklin called, “the vitalization of downtown.” He mentioned “huge strides” the past four-plus years, and said, “I’d like to think for the two-and-a-half years I’ve been at the helm, that’s been ramped up.”
Van Brocklin said Banyas, his predecessor, had led a solid beginning of that downtown renaissance: “It was already starting, and we were able to convince the commission that it was an important process to continue to invest money down there and make it happen.”
He took time to credit Public Works Director Phil Pindzola for helping push for public investment in downtown as well, calling him, “a visionary.
“What he appreciates is having a mayor who understands how important doing certain things is and allows that vision to move forward.”
Van Brocklin’s final area of emphasis is no surprise, considering his previous tenure on the Johnson City Board of Education. An oral surgeon who is the son of public school teachers, Van Brocklin helped spearhead efforts two years ago to bring county and city leaders together to discuss possible collaboration that would benefit both systems.
Those efforts faded, but similar collaborative endeavors have resurfaced in recent months, including the creation of a task force with representation from the city and Washington County as well as both school systems.
“Understanding the importance of education to the students and the community within the municipality, but also within the county as a whole, I’ve certainly wanted to see certain things occur that would allow that to move forward,” Van Brocklin said.
The mayor said he hopes to get two things squared away before stepping down, which he expects to occur by the commission’s first November meeting. One is a final decision on whether and how much the commission will invest in East Tennessee State University’s soon-to-be-built Fine and Performing Arts Center.
The state has approved funding for a 750-seat main hall, but ETSU and the city have worked for nearly two years toward an arrangement that would have the city fund additional seats in exchange for access and other advantages the larger facility could bring.
Van Brocklin also hopes to see the commission formalize a mission statement and values for the city, and to adopt some medium and long-term goals. Commissioners had several long sessions regarding those items more than a year ago, and generally reached a consensus.
“I hope we can revisit those and approve them, and that they help focus us for the last year of this term,” Van Brocklin said.