Washington County Attorney Allyson Wilkinson correctly advised the County Commission against going into executive session — away from public scrutiny — Tuesday as it met to discuss the 20-year lease-to-own deal with Jonesborough to build a new K-8 school and sports complex using town bonds.
County Commissioner Kent Harris was hesitant to ask questions about the deal considering the supposed threat of a lawsuit from Johnson City, so he suggested an executive session. Wilkinson replied that closed sessions are only allowed under the state’s Sunshine Law in cases where litigation has been filed or is pending. She said the interests of “transparency” would be better served if Harris and his colleagues kept their questions “broad.”
Her sound advice was in sharp contrast to the ill-advised step Jonesborough’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen took last month when it shut the public out of discussions to meet with attorneys about the lease agreement. Town Attorney Jim Wheeler, who also serves on the County Commission, should have known better.
Wilkinson’s comment about transparency was spot on, as moving this discussion behind closed doors would only serve to heighten public suspicions, as well as the rancor between Washington County, Jonesborough and Johnson City officials.
Speaking of that rancor, some involved seem hellbent on derailing what could be an amicable solution between the county and the city regarding how to fairly and morally fund school construction projects.
As the bond/lease proposal stands, it would shut city students, who also are Washington County residents, out of their state-mandated share (47.76% on a per-pupil basis) of what would normally be county bonds issued for schools. This despite the fact that Johnson City property owners pay about 60% of the estimated $24.5 million in county property taxes collected for schools
Since 2016, city school board members consistently have protested Washington County’s use of a court-tested loophole in the law allowing a county to use cash exclusively for county school projects without an apportioned amount for students in city schools. That’s how the county would pay the lease and thereby Jonesborough’s bonds.
As we advocated in Sunday’s edition, county and city leaders appear to be close to hammering out an agreement that would avoid litigation and provide funding for both the Jonesborough project and the growing city school district’s building needs.
Washington County Board of Education Chairman Keith Ervin was on that track when he spoke at Monday’s Johnson City Board of Education meeting with a conciliatory tone. He said he would like to see a solution that benefits both systems, and “I support all kids in Washington County.”
At that same meeting, city school board Chairman Tim Belisle expressed support for a Jonesborough school project, but he lobbed more heavy criticism at the county over the funding methods. He said commissioners had wasted time on deciding on a Jonesborough school plan while figuring out how to avoid returning funds to citizens in Johnson City.
In response, Jonesborough Mayor Chuck Vest took Belisle to task in an email to city leaders reprinted Wednesday in our sister paper, the Herald & Tribune. Though he acknowledged the city’s needs, Vest essentially told the city to stay out of Jonesborough’s way on the school plan and trust the County Commission to separately pony up for the city down the road. Historically speaking, the city would have little reason to offer that trust, given the county’s use of the loophole.
While he pledged to support the city’s quest for funds in the end, Vest even went as far as to accuse Johnson City of endangering Jonesborough students “longer than good people should allow” by putting the city’s needs for school projects into the mix now.
Both the mayor and the city school board chairman obviously are passionate about the needs. They should be, but those passions could work against them. Belisle might just be unintentionally baiting county commissioners right out of negotiations. Vest using emotional hyperbole and telling the city to take a massive leap of faith. He might just be unintentionally baiting the city into filing suit.
None of this will get us to a solution. At the risk of using outdated lingo, we have some advice for all involved: Chill.
Let the negotiations play out. Which do you want? A few more weeks of talks or a few years of litigation?
And let’s keep it all in the public eye — no more talk of executive sessions.