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The Power Grab Platform of 2024: The Johnson City Commission’s Strategic Plan to Curb Democracy

This article appeared in Issue 2 of The Northeast Tennessee Organizer.

Don’t look now, but the Johnson City Commission is engaged in a campaign to gut local democracy under the banner of “Excellence in City Government.” Johnson City is going through a crisis in affordable housing. The city is facing two lawsuits involving credible allegations of mass sexual assault and human trafficking enabled by police. In this context, the Commissioners have decided that the “excellence” referred to in their Strategic Plan for 2020-2025 means removing the voice of the people from city government.

The Commission’s Power Grab Platform of 2024, introduced for a first read at their March 21 meeting, is a slate of four proposed changes to the city charter that attack civic engagement under the guise of improved efficiency. Here’s what they are trying to do.

Ordinance 4875-24: Removing the Public from the Public Budget

Currently, the Commission has to publish two drafts of its budget plan, one during the drafting stage and another upon finalization. Under this ordinance, they would only have to publish the final version, and only a mere ten days before they vote on it. Instead of presenting our public budget as something we have a say in, the Commission wants to present it as a done deal, then pass it before regular people have time to blink.

Assistant City Manager Steve Willis and City Commissioner Joe Wise suggest it is a question of cost-savings, efficiency, and “clarity.” Doing this, they say, would save $3,500 in advertising costs. Assistant City Manager Steve Willis stated that publishing the working budget “provides no value to [the Commission] as an elected board, nor does it provide any value to our taxpayers.” At around 34:47 in the livestream video, Commissioner Wise further suggests that the public is not smart enough to understand what a first draft is.

We would ask Mr. Willis and Commissioner Wise a rather basic question about their ideas of value and efficiency: Is the people’s participation in allocating Johnson City’s $166,000,000 General Fund so little appreciated that the Commission considers a $3500 savings in ad expenditures to be of greater value? Why do the commissioners value so little the public who elected them?

You can learn a lot about someone’s values by looking at what they say is costly. What is not too costly for the Commission is its $35,000,000 debt-funded investment in the West Walnut Street project. What is too costly is spending $3500 to foster civic participation in local government. If they think the ads haven’t worked well, why aren’t they looking for better ways to build participation?

This is indeed, as Commissioner Wise hoped, a proposal that provides “clarity.” We can see clearly that the Commissioners’ vision of “Excellence in City Government” is to free the government from accountability to the people.

This ordinance received unanimous support from the Commissioners with no debate.

Ordinance 4876-24: Not Even Pretending to Listen Anymore

This ordinance would allow the Commission to pass ordinances after only a second reading, whereas the current Charter language mandates a three-read process spread out over three Commission meetings.
Here is the idea behind the three-read process.At the first read, the Commission presents the proposed ordinance to the public. The period between this and the second read gives the public time to discuss the proposal with others, do research, and formulate their responses for the public comment period that comes at the second read. Between the second and third reads, we expect the Commissioners to consider the public’s comments before they make their final vote on the ordinance, which happens at the third read.

Folding the first and second reads into a single meeting eliminates the public’s opportunity to consider the proposal before having to respond to it. The city may point to other local governments that have a two-read system. Our response: “the other kids are doing it” doesn’t make it the right thing to do. The elimination of the second read works toward the elimination of the public voice.

Is there really an opportunity to participate when agendas are released at the last minute and buried on an outdated Commission website as if by intent? Can a two-read ordinance process really allow for participation by the working people who make Johnson City run, whose schedules are determined by their employers and who must submit their time-off requests at least two weeks in advance? Is it not already difficult for people to participate in their city government?

We understand that the Commissioners are not themselves in a position to be held at another’s whim, but such conditions are a fact of life for a majority of the residents this Commission claims to serve.
This ordinance received unanimous support from the Commissioners with no debate.

Ordinance 4877-24: Undermining Good Jobs by Creating Indefinite Temp Workers

This ordinance would empower the City Manager to fill city jobs with temporary workers for periods longer than 90 days. The current Charter allows the City Manager to appoint temp workers for a period not to exceed 90 days.

Allowing the unelected City Manager greater control over vulnerable temp workers goes against democratic governance because temps can be fired more easily. This gives them less of a voice to speak up for themselves, and it also damages their ability to speak up if they see something that could hurt the public. Given the ongoing horror story involving Sean Williams and the police force, the public is not served by allowing this kind of power into the City Manager’s hands.

On top of that, keeping people as permanent temps instead of permanent hires hurts our city by undermining good jobs. All workers deserve stable jobs with decent pay and a union so they have a meaningful voice at work.

Rather than concentrating power to hire and fire in the hands of an unelected City Manager, we think such powers should be subject to review by elected officials. We strongly oppose any move that would hinder city workers’ ability to form a union.

This ordinance received unanimous support from the Commissioners with no debate.

Ordinance 4878-24: Making It More Complicated to Vote While Handing Commissioners Nearly Two More Unelected Years in Office

This ordinance would move local Johnson City elections from November, where they coincide with high-turnout state and national elections, to August, where they would coincide with county elections. To address the scheduling challenges arising from this date change, the Commissioners propose giving themselves nearly two extra years in office instead of holding a more democratic special election.
This ordinance is a one-two punch at democratic governance, where moving the elections to a lower-turnout date sets up the second blow of Commissioners extending terms without elections.

First Punch: Commissioner Joe Wise claimed it is “confusing to voters” to have some city and county elections in August and others in November. Moreover, around 42:25 in the March 21 livestream recording, Commissioner Wise acknowledges that August election turnout is historically low. His pitch is that moving the city elections to that historically low date will somehow solve the August turnout issue. Instead of supposing that moving city elections will solve August turnout, , why aren’t Commissioners talking to county officials about moving their elections to high-turnout November? After all, that’s why the Johnson City Commission moved city elections from April to November just a few years ago.

It can be challenging and costly for working-class people in our low-wage economy to find time to vote, or even to find a way to the polling station. One election in November serves regular people better than two across August and November. The City Commission’s proposal does not reckon with this at all.
Second Punch: If the Commissioners are so confident that they are delivering “Excellence in City Government,” should they not welcome the opportunity to renew their mandate? It’s nice the Commissioners all agree they are doing such a good job that two of them, along with the three that will be (re?)elected this November, deserve an extra year and nine months tacked onto their terms, but we would rather hear what the public thinks. Maybe our Commissioners believe that these extra years will allow time for the horrible events surrounding the Sean Williams lawsuit to fade from memory.

Let us not forget that Commissioner Brock has already rationalized one extended term when the Commission moved city elections from April to November in 2014. It’s certainly true that skipping elections is “easier,” particularly for certain people.

This ordinance received unanimous support from the Commissioners with no debate.

This is the Power Grab Platform of 2024. Each plank of the platform was approved unanimously, and although these are big changes, there was not a single point of debate raised by any Commissioner.

A Johnson City for the Few, or a Johnson City for All?

The Johnson City Commission is pushing a platform aimed at rolling back democracy for the people of Johnson City and grabbing more power into their own hands. They should be fostering the democratic civic engagement of all Johnson City residents. Instead, they put even more obstacles in the way of regular people.

We envision a city in which the people have a meaningful say in the city’s budgets, ordinances, appointments, and elections. We envision a city where the public authorities do what they can to expand opportunities for democratic input rather than restricting them. We envision a city that puts the well-being of all people front and center rather than serving first and foremost those with money and connections.

The Johnson City Commission finds encouraging citizens to participate in their government too costly and inefficient. If their idea of efficiency does not include actual human beings, what is it for?

Ordinances 4875-24, 4876-24, 4877-24, and 4878-24 present a combined attack on democratic city governance. So, what can we do about it?

The City Commission has to give two more public readings of these ordinances, on April 4 and April 18. City Commission meetings are at 601 East Main Street, beginning at 6:00. If the ordinances pass, amended or unamended, they must be voted on by the public in a referendum that takes place August 1.

Our next step is to get as many people as possible to show up on April 4 to testify against these ordinances. It’s a good idea to arrive early if you can.Northeast Tennessee DSA members and our allies will be there fighting for our own vision of “Excellence in City Government,” a Johnson City that centers ordinary people in public affairs rather than pushing them to the margins.

Our Commissioners still have the opportunity to do the right thing. Since they’re putting forward a platform that limits the participation of regular people, it seems more likely that regular people will have to defeat this power grab and reclaim ground for democracy by voting No on August 1.

We invite you to join us in demanding a Johnson City for All, not just the monied few.

More Links:
March 21, 2024 City Commission Agenda Packet & Meeting Video
Current City Charter

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