published Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Georgia partisan elections bill picks up steam

COMING MONDAY


The Georgia Senate takes up bill that would ban illegal immigrants from public college system.

Georgia Senate Bill 457
Georgia Senate Bill 457

A bill that would reverse local county governments' ability to petition for nonpartisan elections could come before the Georgia Senate this week.

Currently, school board members and probate judges have the option to become nonpartisan through local acts. Nearly 107 counties have nonpartisan elections, including the Catoosa County School Board.

Across the state, most municipal positions are also nonpartisan.

But Senate Bill 457, which is being backed by local tea party members, would take away the local-act provision and require school boards and probate judges to declare a party affiliation in the future.

Under the bill, county governments can offer a local referendum during the 2012 November elections to allow the public to vote on whether the offices can continue to be nonpartisan.

The bill wouldn't affect city elections or state judges.

"[Candidates] shouldn't be allowed to get in by hiding their party," said Ed Painter, a Dalton tea party member.

Backers say the bill is meant to keep local governments more responsible for their actions and to show the public up front what the political leanings would be for the school board members and probate judges.

But several local Democratic Party leaders say some county seats should be nonpartisan to make sure office holders act in the best interest of the people and not their political party.

"The job itself doesn't have anything to do with politics," said Whitfield County Democratic Chairwoman Judy Dirks.

The Senate bill has some bipartisan support and passed unanimously out of the Senate Committee on State and Local Government Operations -- a subcommittee made up of five Republicans and three Democrats. The bill could go before the full Senate for a vote this week if it passes out of the Rules Committee.

In areas that are predominately Republican, including North Georgia, it would be easier to elect more candidates with similar viewpoints if all local elections are partisan, said George Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor. But the same would be true in predominately Democratic areas, he said.

Dade County Democratic Chairman Tom McMahan said he believes Republicans could be using the bill to gain more power in predominately conservative North Georgia. But he doesn't see the bill as a threat to Democrats.

Partisan elections normally will reflect the majority views of a community, and those views are often changing with new generations, he said.

DEBATE ON PARTISAN ELECTIONS

The local-act provision on elections currently allows counties to petition their local legislative delegation to make their school boards and probate judges nonpartisan. With that option, though, voters can't decide whether they agree with the decision, bill supporters said.

Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, who is co-sponsor of Senate bill 457, said he supports the idea of counties having the choice to vote on whether offices should be nonpartisan.

"Whether a community wants certain offices to be partisan or not, it should be up to them," he said.

Last fall, the Murray County School Board sent a request to local lawmakers, including Bethel, asking to become a nonpartisan board. But Bethel said when he was considering the request, he started to get calls from other offices that also wanted to be nonpartisan.

"That opens a can of worms," he said. "If we did do it for one, why not for another?"

But Catoosa County school board member Billy McDaniel, who has been on the board for 35 years, said he believes members are able to make better decisions without having to declare party ties.

"It's a more fair way of doing things," he said. "We've got both parties on the board and you don't know it."

Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, the lead sponsor on the bill, didn't return calls seeking comment.

While the bill would limit considerably what county offices could become nonpartisan, others believe there should be more nonpartisan elections on the local level.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, filed a bill in December that would expand the number of local offices allowed to ask to become nonpartisan. The new list would include county commission, sheriff, district attorney, solicitor-general, clerk of superior court, tax commissioner, coroner and surveyor.

While the bill received support from the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, it hasn't been introduced yet.

Some local officials agree more county offices should be nonpartisan.

"Anything to do with law enforcement should probably be nonpartisan," McMahan said. "I don't see a Democratic way of being sheriff or Republican way of being sheriff."

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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