Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable has agreed to work to improve his communication with the County Commission, following complaints from one commissioner that he was not sharing crucial information and calls for more transparency from others.
During the public comment segment of the commission’s regular meeting Thursday, Bluff City Commissioner Hershel Glover called on the mayor to be more open and communicative with commissioners.
“The mayor continually withholds important details conducive to making important decisions being considered and debated by this commission, which may be leading to misinterpretation of decisions. … ” Glover said. “More respect and more trust of commission members is required by the mayor.”
Glover cited several instances he said reflected the problem, starting with a moment during the commission’s January meeting, when commissioners were discussing the county school board’s latest proposal for a new access road to West Ridge High School.
Glover said he mentioned that the proposed road was 3,400 or 3,500 feet, roughly two-thirds of which he said fell within the boundaries of the city of Kingsport. He said that Venable then told him, “You’re not being truthful,” and only later explained to him that the length of the road had changed.
“I was never apprised of the revisions in the status of that road detail that occurred,” Glover said.
The commissioner said he’d also been concerned by the recent discovery of a set of bylaws for an initiative to promote “regionalism” that Venable had been working on with Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy, something Glover said he hadn’t heard about and felt the commission should have been kept in the loop on. The initiative started a few years ago and is not connected with NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership or the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, or NETREP, two other regional development initiatives.
Glover said he was also frustrated to learn about the two identical bills recently filed with the Tennessee House of Representatives and Senate calling for changes to hotel occupancy tax laws in Sullivan and Washington counties —bills he said he hadn’t heard anything about, and that no state representatives from Sullivan County had sponsored or even seemed to know about.
“I guess what I’m getting at is [that] mayor, everyone in this room supports you, and we want to work hard to make Sullivan County the best it can be,” Glover said. “But in order for us to do that and continue forward in the interest of Sullivan County taxpayers, we want you to ... provide us with the information that we need,” Glover said.
Commissioners Dwight King, Larry Crawford and Mark Vance—who represent Piney Flats, Kingsport and Bristol, respectively—also backed Glover’s call for transparency during the public comment segment.
“I know that it was ... difficult for Hershel to stand up in front of this body and do what he did, but I think that he had reason to do so,” King said. “I think the days of back room deals ... is over with. I just want this whole group to be transparent.”
Venable serves as mayor and chairman of the commission. When he’s leading commission meetings, he’s playing the part of chairman, not mayor. But that evening, he defended his work in both roles, particularly as mayor, and disagreed with some of the points Glover raised.
For example, the figure Glover shared on the distance of the proposed West Ridge access road, Venable said, was one former highway Commissioner Jim Belgeri brought to the County Commission several years ago, when Belgeri was still highway commissioner.
“That figure was from a few years back,” Venable said by phone Monday. “We were actually talking about two different things.”
He said the presentation that Belgeri brought to the school board in December 2020—this time as a private citizen rather than a county official—made it clear the new proposed access road was much shorter than the original.
The mayor also told the commission that the bylaws in the regionalism initiative were still being ironed out, and he didn’t think it would be practical to share that information until it was more finalized, he said.
But Venable admitted that he’d slipped up in not making sure state Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, or Sullivan County’s other state representatives were in the loop about the hotel occupancy tax bills that had been filed with the General Assembly.
And he said the commission and the mayor’s office could use better communication and more transparency.
“I think Commissioner Glover made some very good points in his speech,” Venable said Monday. “My intention ... is to work on my communication with the commission as the mayor of Sullivan County. … ”
Glover said he plans to push for the creation of a formal mechanism for providing updates to the commission from the mayor’s office, a move Venable said he thought was a good idea.
This isn’t the first time commissioners have challenged Venable’s leadership. In a September 2019 meeting, Kingsport Commissioner Todd Broughton and several other commissioners said they wanted to elect a new county commission chairman; Venable was unable to attend that meeting due to a health issue.
But the commission ultimately decided to hold the election in October, when they reelected Venable as chairman with 16 yes votes, six abstentions and two commissioners absent.
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