Walker County residents filled the theater of Ridgeland High School last week to break down the pros and cons of doing away with the county's sole-commissioner structure of government.
Most at the meeting, hosted by citizen Wilson Road Group, seemed in favor of the change, which would enable voters to elect five commissioners, with one serving as county executive, adopting a model similar to that of Dade County. Walker County's current setup allows one elected leader to oversee all avenues of the local government except for law enforcement.
A panel consisting of Dade County officials and representatives from Walker's Republican, Democrat and Tea Parties fielded questions and concerns about both systems of government throughout the night.
Though some residents have been pushing for a change for years, arguing that the sole-commissioner model gives one person too much power, attendees also pointed to other weaknesses they see in the current style of government.
One Rossville resident, Janice Williams, said having a sole commissioner makes it difficult for individual communities to be heard and have their requests acted upon. She believes switching to a five-person board of commissioners with each member overseeing a specific portion of the county could remedy the issue.
"We don't have commissioner meetings in our area and it's difficult to get a town hall [meeting] to come to Rossville," Williams said. "Everything revolves around LaFayette, and I think each community needs someone representing them to be able to convey what's happening in their particular community rather than an isolationist approach."
Other residents noted that the five-commissioner system with an appointed vice chairperson would make it easier for officials to know on whom authority should fall should the elected leader fall ill or be unable to attend a meeting.
Ted Rumley, chairman of the Dade County Commission, advocated for the five-member board model and spoke against the most prominent argument in favor of the sole-commissioner structure: that it's faster and more efficient, given that one person can make decisions without a board vote.
"If [our sheriff] needs something, we make it happen," Rumley said, referencing earlier remarks from Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson about the quick response of sole commissioners past and present to the department's needs. "... If you're all in there for the right reason, that's not a problem. You don't always agree, but sometimes you just have to agree to disagree."
Still, much of the meeting was spent pointing to the need for accountability, with Bebe Heiskell's name and expenditures during her time as Walker County's sole commissioner often creeping to the forefront of conversation.
"What's happened in the past is the past, but the reason I bring these things up is, if we don't, the past will be repeated in the future," said Dean Kelley, who sat on the panel as a member of the Walker County Tea Party. "... I don't mean to pick on Bebe Heiskell, but these things that happened are a matter of public record. So we have to look at those and hopefully learn our lesson as we move into the future."
Moderating the forum was Jason Walker, an on-air personality with WDOD-FM 96.5. Throughout the night, he cautioned residents and panelists alike against basing their discussion and decision on the leadership of Heiskell rather than the proposed form of government itself.
"This is not a vote for or against either of them," Walker said of Heiskell and current Commissioner Shannon Whitfield. "It is a vote for a form of government."
An official vote for the change will take place during the general elections Nov. 6.
Email Myron Madden at firstname.lastname@example.org.