Walker County Republicans to vote on sole commissioner government

Bebe Heiskell

Walker County, Ga., Republicans now can formally vote on whether they like their current form of government.

The county's Republican party voted Tuesday night to place a nonbinding referendum on the presidential primary ballot next March, asking voters whether they support the sole commissioner style of government. As of 2012, Walker was one of nine counties with that form of government in Georgia, the only state that allows a sole commissioner to operate a county.

Walker County Republican Party Chairman Matt Williamson said about 14 of the 17 party committee members were at the meeting. They voted by acclamation, with no members voting against placing the item on the ballot.

He said members of the party did not bring up the fact that Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell increased the local portion of property taxes by about 64 percent last year, increased that same portion by about 13 percent this year, had to issue a bond this year, lost about $2 million at Mountain Cove Farms or spent about $880,000 to buy an empty bank building - all issues of controversy for some residents.

Williamson said the voters hoping to put the issue up to a vote simply made an ideological plea.

"A lot of people say Walker County needs to move into the 20th Century," he said.

photo Bebe Heiskell

The vote is non-binding, but it would allow local officials to say how popular the sole commissioner form of government is among Walker County Republicans, who represent almost the entire county.

During the 2012 presidential primaries, 5,900 Republicans voted in Walker County. By comparison, 210 Democrats voted.

This is the third time in 12 months some local voters have pushed to put the question on the ballot. Last fall, 1,800 people signed an online petition asking state Rep. John Deffenbaugh and state Sen. Jeff Mullis to place the referendum on a ballot. Nothing happened.

In March, during the Walker County Republican Party Convention, members of the party rejected a similar petition, 57-53.

Williamson acknowledged that Tuesday's vote creates an awkward situation for Walker County Republicans. The leadership has now voted against the slight majority from March. Williamson said the party voted again because opinions about the sole commissioner form of government "are shifting."

"The only way to know how Republican voters feel about this was to place it on the ballot," he said in a Facebook post Wednesday. "Also, leaders must from time to time follow conscience in promoting the greater good."

He said he has not heard any complaints from Heiskell, Mullis, Deffenbaugh or any other local officials.

"So far, everything I've heard is positive," he said. "I don't expect that to continue as news of the vote spreads."

Heiskell did not return a call seeking comment on Wednesday. But in March, after the Republican Party Convention, she said she would not oppose the vote, if that's what the party wanted to do. She said the questions about the sole commissioner form of government is a personal attack against her, not a discussion about properly representing the people.

"It's beating Bebe time," she said. "People are getting ready to qualify to run."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6476.