EDITORS NOTE: At the time of print, Dr. Jodi Polaha Jones had not announced her desire to fill the vacant 4th District seat on the Washington County Commission. After learning of her inclusion, the News & Neighbor allowed her to answer the same questions as her opponents for our online version.
By Collin Brooks
Four candidates have publicly expressed their desire to fulfill the remainder of David Tomita’s 4th District Washington County Commission seat which will end in 2018. The commission will choose a candidate during their Feb. 27 meeting. Richard Johnson, Phil McPeak, Tyler Parsons and Dr. Jodi Polaha Jones all took time to answer a few questions provided to them by The News & Neighbor about why they would be the right selection.
Johnson was appointed as chancellor in 1988 by former Tennessee Governor Ned McWherter and he served at that post until his retired in 2012. He was a big advocate for the construction of the George Jaynes Justice Center.
McPeak is a former Washington County Commissioner who was first elected in 1994. He won a second term in 1998, but ran again in 2002 and lost. McPeak was elected again in 2006 and served through his 2010 term.
Parsons is 29 years old and serves as the Johnson City Convention & Visitors Bureau and Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce board of directors, and is the Tri-Cities Young Professionals president. Parsons was born in Lansing, Michigan. He graduated from Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sports management and administration.
Dr. Jones is an associate professor in East Tennessee State University’s Department of Family Medicine. She has over two decades of expereince working in primary care and is a clinical psychologist, researcher and public health/prevention scholar. Jones has lived in Johnson City for 10 years and served as Southside Neighborhood Organization president from 2011 to 2014. During that time she was able to help lead important initiatives in historic preservation and helping to delveop seven Little Free Libraries in the Tree Streets.
Below you will find their responses to five questions.
Why do you want to fill the vacant seat?
JPJ: “I have a strong history of community leadership, service, and advocacy. It is work I am passionate about, at least in part because I love this region so much. I want to fill the vacant seat so I can further my commitment to serving this county and its people. My work in the Tree Streets, the Food Co-op, and other projects has allowed be to develop broad exposure to economic development, zoning, city functioning, commercial real estate, the school systems, and the development of agriculture and recreation opportunities here. I have strong listening and advocating skills from my work as a psychologist and professor. I feel strongly I should put these assets to work in service like this.”
RJ: “I think that the county is on the cusp of accomplishing some of the greatest projects that the county has faced in two decades or so. I would like to be a part of that. I can modestly say that I think that I am qualified, I spent 20 years practicing law, I spent 25 years on the chancellery court bench. I have been active in my profession and I have professional and life experiences that I think qualify me. And probably my best qualification is that I have fire in my belly for this job. I am modest enough to think that I have something to contribute and I would like to be part of some real great things that are happening in the county.”
PM: “I have served on the commission for three previous terms and I know that I have the experience and basic idea of how the commission works. And I like the process of local government. It is where, really, the things that happen in local government are what really affects more people than anything else. Even more than state or federal government. That part of it is always something that I appreciate and I feel like I’m at a stage in my life where I am retired and I have the time to serve and the time to give to it and I just feel like I would be a very appropriate person to serve on that commission.”
TP: “I’d like to have a positive impact in the community. It’s a cliché answer, but the truth, and I hope that’s the reason anyone would want to be on the County Commission. And I feel I would bring a different perspective to the Commission. Keeping young people here has to be a priority moving forward, and I believe I can provide a voice for that demographic. But above all, it’s an opportunity to impact the community I live and work in, and that would be a tremendous honor.”
If selected, what are your priorities during the time that you complete your term?
JPJ: “The County is engaged in some important projects at this time such as in the school systems. This is a short term (18 months), and my priority would be to make quick progress in learning about the committed and engaged work of other Commissioners and then find places within those projects where I can deploy my skills, knowledge, and interests to help out. I would make it a priority to listen carefully to the perspectives of all the commissioners as well as to communicate my abilities so that they could engage my energies where they might have the most impact. ”
RJ: “My first priority will be to listen. You learn a lot more by listening than you do by talking. And I have a background of being a listener. So being a good listener, being a good communicator, not necessarily me doing the communication. For instance, I have been attending the commission meetings, I have been attending all the committee meetings that I was aware of and I spend that time in an attempt to be better informed and hopefully — if I am elected — I will be ready to make decisions and hit the road running.”
PM: “I think the major thing that is going to happen is the funding for new schools in the county, especially. And, I know they’re looking at a whole lot of different ways of doing that, and I think that just fundamentally has to be a huge responsibility. I’ve been through that in the past commissions, one of the commissions that I served on was very much involved in revitalizing and actually building new schools within the county. I think we, either rebuilt or revitalized, just about every county school.”
TP: “One key area for me is recruitment. And I mean that as a two-fold answer in that we need to not only recruit new people to this region, but we have to recruit the people who live here to stay. We did a survey with my Young Professional group (YP-TRI), and we asked them if they thought they could reach their career goals living in this region. Over 60% didn’t think they could. That is a problem and we need to find a solution to that or we are going to keep watching young people move away. Employee retention is a very real problem for some of the larger companies in this region.
Outdoor recreation is another area I view as a priority. We live in a gorgeous part of the country and we need to make sure we are not only taking care of it, but promoting it. As part of our quality of life, I believe our parks, rivers and natural resources are being underutilized. The Tweetsie Trail is a tremendous example of how we can utilize our environment to create a community asset.
And finally, education is an area I’m very passionate about, and continuing to improve the schools is very important. Our educational system helps mold and shape our future, and we need to make sure we are giving every child in this area the best educational experience we can provide.”
What are your feelings on the 40-cent property tax increase that was passed during the summer?
JPJ: “I am generally in favor of well-vetted property tax increases, particularly those that aim to improve the health and education of people in Washington County. I trust the Commission engaged the deliberations with care. The decision to raise taxes can never be taken lightly. A good Commissioner would certainly have to be in close contact with his or her constituents as well as very attentive to alternative solutions proposed by others. ”
RJ: “I would not only say yes, but absolutely yes. First, one must understand that this wasn’t just a tax increase, this was a tax increase where every penny of that 40 cents was allotted to a capital projects fund, including the largest portion to schools. Education consumes about 50 percent of the county budget and the way to fiscally plan for the future is to have the money allotted to pay for those capital projects. The tax increase figures into the capital projects fund, where x pennies, from that 40 cents, goes to a specific budgetary item. And the county has got to have roads, the county has to have schools and the county has to have infrastructure. My goodness, this is what I mean by being on the cusp of a good thing. It’s just hard to believe that there are people in the county who want water and can’t get it. This is the 21st century. So yes, I was for the 40-cent increase, because the pennies of that 40 cents were allocated to a capital projects fund, which is in my view, excellent financial management. That is the way it should be done. Incidentally as the way that fund works, there will not be a need for a tax raise in the county for the next decade or so. Because we are going to be building money up in the capital projects fund and by doing that we save money by having cash on hand.”
PM: “I don’t really have a strong opinion about it. It appears on paper that that it was pretty much unavoidable. As long as the commission does what they agreed to do with that 40-cent increase. If they just follow through on what they say they are going to do, then I could kind of understand it. At the same time, I am a property tax owner, like everyone else that is running, pretty much. I want to see our property tax stay as low as possible. I’m never going to sit here and say there is no way I would vote for a tax increase, although I would hope that we wouldn’t have to have another property tax increase for a long period of time. I just hate to see everything on the back of the property tax owner.”
TP: “Obviously anytime you talk about raising taxes, it’s going to be unpopular to some. I wasn’t part of the County Commission who had to vote on this issue and wasn’t part of their internal discussions, so it’s a challenge for me to comment on that decision. A large portion of that went towards capital funding for schools, and that is an area I see as a priority. Nobody likes to raise taxes, but it can be necessary in certain situations.
What are your feelings on the commission decreasing their numbers from 25 to 15?
JPJ: “I think streamlining the commission was a good idea and generally a popular one. It seems like it would be a more nimble group, perhaps more capable of quicker impact. Future candidates will have to consider the greater burden on them as sole representative of their district. It will be a significant responsibility.”
RJ: “I think the public demanded it, they absolutely demanded it. Because so many people wanted it and pushed for it, it happened. In my mind, it presents a completely different political dynamic. Because now, rather than certain districts having three representatives, as my district does, with the 15 district system, every district will only have one commissioner. I think that will present a different political dynamic on the commission. Rather than taking 13 votes to get something passed, it will now take eight.”
PM: “I think it is the right thing to do and I think it is very appropriate. It is a very appropriate number and it gives very equal numbers for every district. You know the county commission is a whole different animal than the city commission. What you are doing, to me, is that you are representing your district. But for me, one of the things I think is important is to represent your district as best as you can, but at the same time, the thin line that you walk on the county commission is you have to weigh that against the values, the needs and the culture of the entire county. Because whatever you do, will affect, not just the city or the district, but you are affecting the entire county.”
TP: “Based on the feedback I have received from the community, I feel like it was a good decision. Again, without being part of those discussions it’s tough to give a direct answer, but the overwhelming opinion I have heard is that it was the proper decision.”
Will you run for re-election again?
JPJ: “Yes. I am very interested in local politics and feel ready to emerge myself in this work. The experience of working in this shorter-term position will help me navigate to local positions that are best suited for me and where I can make a difference. ”
RJ: “It’s too early to tell. I am thinking that I will enjoy this job — if I am fortunate enough to get it. I am a retired guy, I’ve got the time to put into it and I have the interest to put into it. And I look forward to it.”
PM: “No. I addressed that in a letter to all the commissioners, just to explain to them why I was running and why I thought I would make a good representative. And one of the things that I mentioned in that was that I would definitely not be running and have no plans of running in 2018. My thinking there is, that a person that is appointed to that seat — first of all it’s an honor — but secondly, if you were going to run in the following election, to me, it gives a person that is appointed to the seat somewhat of an unfair advantage to those out there that have not been appointed or who are not on the commission, who would like to run. It’s easier to be elected when you’re serving than it is a new person coming on. That doesn’t mean a new person coming on can’t be elected, by any means, I just think it’s an unfair advantage to the people that would run in 2018.”
TP: “As of now, I absolutely would run for re-election. It all comes down to why I’m running for the vacant seat. This is an avenue to impact this community in a positive way, and if I feel the same way come re-election time, I would definitely run again.”