Community News Walker County on track to change system of government by 2021

Community News Walker County on track to change system of government by 2021

April 12th, 2017 by Shane Foley in Community North Georgia

Then-candidate Shannon Whitfield, right, hugs a supporter after winning his Republican primary election for Walker County sole commissioner last May.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Just over four years — that's the earliest Walker County could see its system of government shift from a sole-commissioner system, and it looks like the county is on track for that timeline.

The bill required to be approved before county residents get to vote on the matter is currently sitting on Gov. Nathan Deal's desk, Walker County Public Relations Director Joe Legge reported last week.

"... I ran as the last sole commissioner of Walker County," said Commissioner Shannon Whitfield.

The system Whitfield's office has proposed is what is known as a four-plus-one system. Dade County employs the model, which involves the public election of a full-time chairman who functions as the county executive and runs the day-to-day operations, similar to the role of a sole commissioner.

Where Walker's new setup will diverge from its current model, if approved, is through the implementation of districts. Four districts would make up the county: Rossville, Chickamauga, LaFayette and Lookout Mountain. Voters in each of those districts would elect their own representative, and that representative would have a vote in county commission meetings.

Whitfield said he's already had people draw up the district maps, which would get redrawn every 10 years to be in line with the federal census process, and the necessary legislation has been debated and voted on in the Georgia House of Representatives and Senate. Any fundamental change to a county's system of government must be voted on by the state Legislature.

Legge said the bill passed the Georgia House March 24 and the Georgia Senate March 30. It now sits on Deal's desk along with dozens of others to sign into law, Legge said.

If Deal signs the bill before the 2017/2018 fiscal year starts July 1, a county-wide referendum will be set into motion in time for the next state election in November 2018. If county residents vote to change the government during that referendum, citizens would have to wait for the state election in November 2020 to vote on their district representatives, who would assume office Jan. 1, 2021.

Even if Deal doesn't sign the bill, Walker could still potentially change its system of government to the four-plus-one model, but would have to wait until the subsequent state election in 2020 for the matter to be put to a referendum vote. In that case, the earliest the new commissioners could assume their seats would be Jan. 1, 2023.

Whitfield didn't seem overly concerned about that possibility.

"This is on the fast track to get in this year, but it's still a four-year process," he said.