I need to return to the topic of town politics again. Our town is served by many voluntary advisory boards. These are all staffed by community volunteers and are all non-paid. This honorable service has been unfortunately turned into a cynical political process by the current Council majority. One of my goals when I was elected to the council was to improve the process of appointments to boards to increase participation. I originated a new board ordinance which put all boards into one place in the town code for easy reference and attempted to standardize the process of appointments and terms of service. I also initiated the concept of "council liaisons" which would be a point person on the council for each board to facilitate communication. I had hoped to make it much easier for citizens to participate in town government and to get a broader range of views represented.
I have recently been told that a council member (Annette Allen, who is the liaison to the Parks Board) has asked long time Parks Board member Jeff Duncan to remove himself from consideration for reappointment so she can put forth a favored candidate. I don't know that there has been any public discussion or vote on this, though confess I am not an attendee at council meetings and am still doing some research on this. Jeff is a PhD biologist who works for the National Park Service and has been a long time member of the Parks Board. His qualifications are without question ideal for that board. However, he has had the audacity to oppose Ms. Allen's pet project of turning over the rights to town park lands to a private non-profit land trust (on which Dr. Duncan sits as a board member) to prevent future Councils from having any say-so in their future use. He did this in a very well considered essay that I have published and which also appeared in the Community News. It should be noted that, while the goal of opening up a position for someone new was apparently used as an excuse, the Parks Board was recently expanded from 5 to 7 members and there is a consideration to expand the MACC Board from 7 to 11, so there are clearly other mechanisms to increase participation.
This is not an isolated or new occurence. After I was elected mayor, one of my first responsibilities was to appoint two members to the Planning Commission. At that time, the Planning Commission was the only board where the mayor had full authority to make appointments. This was based on a state law which was subsequently changed by the majority on the town council (a change that only applied to Signal Mountain) to eliminate any authority by the mayor to make any independent decisions. Nonetheless, all appointments that I made were made with the input and agreement of the council and all were confirmed by unanimous votes by the Council. My first appointment was an attempt to broaden the viewpoint and balance the involvement on the Planning Commission by using the two openings to both re-appoint a sitting member, Wells Blake and also to appoint a member of the "Recall" Faction to the commission to represent those views. I appointed Melissa Cantrell. This was an attempt at balance and fairness and seeking a diversity of opinions.
Since then, the appointment process has gradually evolved into a very political one. It rapidly became apparent to me that appointments to the boards would only pass if the appointees held views acceptable to the majority. There were many examples of this: Dan Saieed, former chairman of the Planning Commission requested to be re-appointed. Although I had full authority to do this on my own, Dan, being a man of honor, said he only wanted re-appointment if he had the support of the council. This was after a very successful process of developing a new land-use plan one year after we all were elected or appointed. I informed the council of his request and was met with a torrent of insults and attacks on Mr. Saieed. When I asked for substantiation accusations by the other four on the council of inappropriate conduct by Mr. Saieed, I was given none. When I reviewed his record and informed the council that I found no record of any wrong conduct, I was met with silence. Nonetheless, when I told Dan that he did not have the Council's support, he withdrew his name.
Later, Greg Goodgame asked for reappointment. Greg had served on the Design Review Commission for several years, was the Chair of the commission and had been a regular attendee of Council meetings. Unfortunately, he had also run for Town Council and opposed the recall. After initially agreeing to reappoint Mr. Goodgame, the Council tabled his application in a regular public Monday night meeting then later rejected his appointment at one of our weekday "agenda meetings" when no public was present. Again, accusations were made that he had not fulfilled his responsibilities in re-writing both design review regulations and a new sign ordinance in the previous year. I didn't know all the workings of the DRC for my first two years on the Council. Bill Lusk has served as liaison and had apparently never attended a meeting. I became liaison and forwarded a request from the DRC for help in drafting these new ordinances. This led to the hiring of an outside design firm (KRW) to help with the design ordinances. Now, two or more years later I don't believe either of these ordinances have been finalized. Nonetheless, Greg was booted out of his volunteer position for having had the temerity of opposing the majority of the council on the recall.
Another instance was the removal of Wells Blake from the Planning Commission. Susan Robertson accused him of using his position for personal gain (again, in an "agenda meeting" when Wells was not present to defend himself). The fact that the ethics and organization of his occupation as an appraiser prevented any such activity was apparently lost on her, but she attacked and removed him anyway. Mrs. Robertson was also found abusing her "liaison" role in picking and choosing which candidates to even present to the Council for consideration. At one meeting she announced that she and the Tree Board chair had decided which individuals to appoint to the Tree Board. When I asked her at which public meeting this decision had been made and by whom, Mr. Long, the Tree Board chair honorably acknowledged that they had essentially violated the Open Meetings Law by making these decisions in private and apologized (though Mrs. Robertson did not). She later told me in private that the other candidates were unacceptable to her and she had applied her own criteria to weed them out, though provided no specifics.
I find this effort of stuffing the various town boards with political supporters and friends of the majority on the council to be an unfortunate turn for the town. I think that increasing participation should involve adding alternative opinions to broaden the views of the council. These are supposed to be "advisory" councils, not rubber-stamps for the previously decided views of the council. I hope that, in this fall's election, the board selection process will be brought forward as an important issue for the town.