Walker County votes to return government to board of commissioners

Voting stickers are ready to be taken by voters at the Chickamauga Civic Center on Tuesday, May 22, 2018, in Chickamauga, Ga. Turnout was steady at the polling place for Georgia's Tuesday primary election.

LAFAYETTE, Ga. - Seventy-seven years after they turned their local government into a one-stop shop, Walker County voters moved back to a board of commissioners Tuesday night.

Voters overwhelmingly adopted a referendum asking for a switch in the type of government, 16,824-4,080. Residents in the county, including prominent local Republicans, advocated for the change for several years, especially in the final years of former Commissioner Bebe Heiskell's tenure.

"The citizens of Walker County have made a decision to take control of their government," said County Republican Party Chair Mike Cameron, an architect of the new form of government. "We look forward to working with elected officials to move this forward. The Republicans want to thank to Tea Party and Democratic Party for their assistance, as well as the (Rossville) Wilson Road Neighborhood Group and (their leader) David Roden."

Beginning in 2021, the county will move to a form of government similar to that of Dade County, with four commissioners representing districts and an executive elected by every voter in the county. The districts will consist of Rossville, Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain and LaFayette.

Voters will elect the new board in the November 2020 election. The four commissioners representing districts will each make $12,000 a year. The chair, who will work full-time for the county and oversee most day-to-day operations, will make $500 more than the next highest paid county employee.(Currently, Sheriff Steve Wilson is the county's highest-paid employee, making about $118,000 a year.)

A sole-commissioner form of government is an oddity in the United States. Georgia is the only state that allows it. And in Georgia, only eight counties use that form. This includes nearby Chattooga and Murray counties.

Here, voters abandoned a board for a sole commissioner on Sept. 6, 1939. To put it mildly, this was a different era in America. At the time, according to Georgia state archives, one of the requirements of a Walker County commissioner was to work on a local chain gang for six months during their four-year term. (A plus side? They were exempt from jury duty.)

Articles in the Walker County Messenger were pretty short and bare of key details, and the writers do not explain the infighting that caused the switch. But in an editorial, the newspaper's editor endorsed a sole commissioner style of government, writing "We firmly believe it is a more business-like system."

In a later article, a reporter noted that the county was in about $100,000 of debt, with expectations that the deficit would eventually rise to $500,000. In the end, 985 people voted for the change and 489 people voted against it. The week before the vote, a reporter for the Messenger wrote that 4,500 people were eligible to vote in the county. The paper described the low turnout as the result of "considerable confusion as to the registration lists, which denied many the right to suffrage."

In recent decades, sole commissioners here have preached the value of a simplified form of government. Buddy Chapman, who served in the role in the 1990s, said no other type of management was more efficient. His successor, Bebe Heiskell, who served in office for 16 years, still preaches its merits.

Toward the end of Heiskell's time in office, however, critics protested the style as too overarching. (The Wall Street Journal covered an election in 2012, painting the county as a backwoods, out-of-date oddity.)

Heiskell's critics especially took issue with her use of money. With Hutcheson Medical Center on the brink of bankruptcy, she guaranteed half of a $20 million loan from Erlanger Health System. When the deal went belly up, she refused to pay the debt. When Erlanger sued, she countersued. (She would lose a re-election before the county finally agreed to pay its share earlier this year.)

Residents questioned Heiskell's transparency. She held her public meetings at 2 p.m. She bought an old bank building in Rock Spring for $880,000, then told residents that the Georgia Department of Revenue told her she had to buy a new office. A spokeswoman for the agency later denied this.

Facing a fine from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division over a spill in a Lookout Mountain creek, she said the agency had forgiven the county. A member of the agency said this, too, was not true. When she left office, her successor, Shannon Whitfield, learned that she offered $770,000 in retirement bonuses to longtime employees in her final months in office.

Meanwhile, property taxes increased. In 2014, she raised them 54 percent. In 2015, she raised them 8 percent. And yet, when Whitfield took office, an audit revealed the county was about $70 million in debt. In his first year, Whitfield raised taxes another 50-70 percent, depending on what part of the county you lived in.

All of this was on voters' minds Tuesday. Emily Johnson, 29, said outside the Rossville precinct that Heiskell's legacy tainted the sole commissioner form of government: "She really did Rossville in and Walker County in. We've had to pay lots of taxes, even more taxes."

Said Barbara Dean, 70, also in Rossville: "She got us in a hole. She kept borrowing money and borrowing money that she knew she wouldn't ever be able to pay back. And now we're still having to pay. And that makes it hard on elderly, disabled people. I'm one of them."

Some residents began efforts to change the style of government with an online petition in 2014. That didn't get any traction. The Walker County Republican Party then put a non-binding referendum on the May 2016 primary ballot. Voters said they wanted change, with 4,503 supporting a new government and 1,480 supporting a sole commissioner style. State legislators then put the binding referendum on the ballot for this year.

For his part, Whitfield did not endorse or dissuade the change. But he did mention that he would run for re-election as sole commissioner in 2020 if voters rejected the referendum. If they supported the change, putting four more people in the government? A spokesman for Whitfield said last month he hadn't made up his mind.

James Wigley, 45, in Chattanooga Valley, said Tuesday that his vote to change to a board was not a referendum on Whitfield. He supports the commissioner's work over the last two years. Whitfield has published a line-item budget, a departure from the thin, two-page financial statements Heiskell used to push out. He also has organized more public meetings than he is legally required to hold.

"Whitfield has done a better job," Wigley said. "Much, much better. I absolutely believe that in my heart. But I do believe it should come down to a decision of many, not a decision of one."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.