Move to hire existing director in new JCDA role withdrawn after some commissioners balk

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With the downtown Johnson City sign behind them, cyclists prepare for the Taco Trek, one of many downtown activities promoted by the Johnson City Development Authority.

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – It was “not yet” Friday for the possible ascension of Johnson City Development Authority (JCDA) Downtown Director Dianna Cantler to the executive director role.

At their monthly meeting, JCDA commissioners debated the propriety of Human Resources Committee chair Tembra Aldridge’s motion to hire Cantler without posting the position or conducting a search. The agenda had made no mention of considering an executive director hiring.

That meeting also saw a warning from commissioner Hank Carr against using reserve funds to balance the fiscal 2021 budget, due to uncertainties surrounding JCDA’s mortgage on the John Sevier Center.

“Based on what I know our obligations are as it relates to our loan at the John Sevier, I would caution us from spending any money out of our reserve account for anything,” Carr said during discussion about a draft budget for the year that stars July 1.

That draft currently projects the use of $40,000 in reserve funds to pay for ongoing expenses. JCDA has a $1 million balloon payment due in September on the mortgage, which it has not yet budgeted for.

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“That (the $4.6 million Sevier mortgage) is an obligation that we have to honor in some shape form or fashion, and to suggest we can pull any money out of that reserve account right now … it doesn’t feel right from my perspective,” Carr said.

Hiring discussions bring varied results

Commissioner Craig Torbett eventually withdrew his second to the executive director motion during a busy meeting that also included passage of a change to the bylaws and approval of a part-time finance and operations manager.

The Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership (NETREP) has provided much of JCDA’s operational support through a relationship that ends June 30. Commissioners have worked on that transition the last few months as they also deal with the many moving parts of the project to find a company to build housing for John Sevier residents ahead of selling the former hotel to a developer.

JCDA Downtown Director Dianna Cantler

In making her motion regarding Cantler, Aldridge said “the HR committee feels like Dianna has been performing the job duties and should be given the opportunity to continue such.” The motion was to confer the executive director title on Cantler at her current pay rate.

Carr noted that in past meetings commissioners had asked whether city policies require the position to be posted. No one knew whether that question had been answered.

“For me it’s going to require a fair amount of conversation,” Carr said. “Some of my thoughts are, was there a review (of Cantler), has there ever been a review. All relevant. Whether I support it or not I just want to ask those questions and also what the city’s HR policy is… You have to do this correctly.”

Commissioner Jodi Jones added that her previous suggestion had been that such a decision, whenever it is made, should come in a meeting without Cantler present if she’s among the candidates.

Aldridge continued to press for a vote. She said expecting an evaluation of Cantler when NETREP CEO Mitch Miller had been the titular executive director would be unfair “because that would be Mitch performing that.”

“I do not feel like in all fairness we just go a different route,” Aldridge said shortly after. “I just feel like she’s done the job, she deserves a chance and then we as board members need to set our expectations.”

Carr and commissioner Joe Wise, who moved that the decision be deferred, both said the hesitancy was related to process.

“I don’t think anyone on this call doubts the contributions Dianna has made to downtown,” Wise said. Rather, he said, he wanted to make sure JCDA “dotted our i’s and crossed our t’s so that when this hits the newspaper tomorrow someone isn’t raising the issue, ‘well, you just appointed an executive level position in Johnson City and didn’t go through an appropriate process.”

Commissioner Shannon Castillo noted that the board had discussed in recent strategic planning that “this job description may be two separate positions.

“Dianna even knows, it’s a big job to be over JCDA and over Main Street (the Main Street program),” Castillo said. Slowing down, she said, would “(allow) us to do that strategic planning and really set people up to succeed.”

Commissioners eventually elected to conduct a called meeting in June to consider the executive director position. Aldridge is tasked with learning from Johnson City’s HR department whether the position needs to be posted.

Prior to that discussion, commissioners approved a lower-level position that had been posted and received multiple applications. With NETREP’s Ryan Chupa no longer overseeing JCDA’s financials, the board had sought a half-time finance and operations manager.

Cantler and HR committee members said one candidate had stood far above the rest. It was Jim Dorton, who has been involved in downtown initiatives as a volunteer and served as CFO for NN Inc. from 2005 to 2016 and had been in the corporate work since 1980.

Dorton will be paid $22 an hour for a job that includes tax increment finance details, grant work and several other moving parts.

In other business, commissioners:

  • Approved changes to JCDA bylaws that will decrease the number of commissioners from its current 15 to 13 and eliminate the executive committee, among other changes.
  • Approved leasing a new location at 207 N. Boone St. for $500 a month. JCDA currently occupies space in NETREP’s offices.
  • Discussed an upcoming Washington County Commission vote on whether to increase JCDA’s TIF debt limit and amend the TIF allocation calculation. Amending the allocation calculation to require payment only of taxes collected, not of the total owed, would decrease the county’s current-year TIF obligation by more than $90,000, and save the county a similar amount going forward. The JCDA and the city of Johnson City approved those changes to the redevelopment agreement last year, but the county commission rejected the change at that time.

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