Walker County voters say they're ready to ditch sole commissioner government

photo Bebe Heiskell
photo Shannon Whitfield

On election night while most eyes in Walker County, Ga., were turned toward the Republican primary for sole county commissioner, voters had their say in another important issue farther down the ballot - replacing that commissioner with a board.

The sole county commissioner is a rarity in 2016. Of more than 3,000 counties across the nation, only eight are currently served by a sole commissioner, and all of them are in Georgia.

But Tuesday's results show Walker County residents want to make it seven: 4,503 people voted in favor of a nonbinding referendum on transitioning to a five-person board of commissioners, while 1,480 cast ballots against.

Said Matt Williamson, Walker County Republican Party chairman: "In my mind, and in the mind of everybody on the county committee that I have talked to up to this point, people feel like it was a very strong statement by voters in Walker County that they want to move toward a board of commissioners."

But since it's nonbinding, the referendum functioned as little more than a public poll. State legislation would be needed to make the board a reality.

The next opportunity for a state lawmaker to bring a bill calling for a binding referendum is Jan. 1, 2017. In the meantime, political leaders say they will spend the next several months turning the issue over and over to find the best way forward.

Williamson said, "The Republican Party is going to honor the results of this past Tuesday's election and we will support the will of the people in following through with actions to carry out an effort to bring about a board of commissioners."

That process would present a variety of new challenges, such as outlining appropriate voting districts. Fortunately, some of Walker County's closest neighbors have gone through the same transformation and come out the other side unscathed.

In 1988, attorney McCracken Poston was elected to the General Assembly in Georgia's 2nd District and witnessed firsthand that change in Catoosa County, another sole commissioner holdout. Residents expressed a desire to move to a board, so in 1992 he introduced a House bill to establish one and it sailed through the Legislature.

Looking back, he thinks it was a good call.

"You know, I'm proud of it," he said. "It seems to have done well, the citizens get active in it and change a few heads every now and then, change a few faces, but it was a good outcome, I think."

Now that Walker County voters have signaled they would like to see the same thing happen there, it's easy to see how Catoosa County's transition could serve as a blueprint for them.

Poston said, "With those numbers, that's showing trends like Catoosa was showing in 1988. [Walker County] legislators ought to think deeply about following Catoosa's lead."

None of the current legislators in Walker County who could bring such a resolution to the floor, Sen. Jeff Mullis, Rep. Steve Tarvin or Rep. John Deffenbaugh, were immediately available to comment Saturday on whether they would support such legislation.

But in February 2015, Mullis told the Times Free Press he believed most people in in the county supported the sole commissioner form of government.

If legislators do choose to follow through on the move starting next year, that would mean the next sole commissioner could be the last, something incumbent Bebe Heiskell and Republican challenger Shannon Whitfield say they are completely fine with.

Whitfield said, "It appears to me that the Walker County citizens are ready for a multiboard government in Walker County. They also sent the message that they want Shannon Whitfield to be the last sole commissioner."

"People have lost confidence and trust in the sole form of government because we've not had transparency and accountability for a long time in Walker County government. People are ready and are seeking for transparency."

Heiskell, who has served 15 years as a Republican but is running this year as an independent, said, "If that's what people want, I don't have a problem with that."

Heiskell also said this will be her last time running for office and added that there are positives and negatives to the current form of government.

"The buck stops with the sole commissioner and they get all the blame for everything, but then they're the person to go to. When you have more than one commissioner you don't really know who to go to," she said.

"There's a lot of different ways you can do it and I don't really care."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.