A year ago this November, residents of Walker County voted overwhelmingly to transition from a sole commissioner to a five-member board, spreading the power to multiple elected officials.
The switch will go into effect January 2021 but the candidates will be voted on in the November 2020 election, and with less than a year until the primary in May, residents are already declaring their candidacy.
Eleven candidates and more than 80 community members attended a forum at Union Avenue Baptist Church last week.
"We wanted to start an education process for those who may not be familiar with the way this will work," Dean Kelley, executive director of the Georgia Transparency Coalition, told the attendees.
The meeting was co-hosted by the Wilson Road Neighborhood Group, a vocal citizens group that pushed for the transition.
"We plan on doing it in different places throughout the county, but we thought this would be a good place to begin," Kelley said in kicking off the Rossville informational session.
State Rep. Steve Tarvin from Chickamauga led the first part of the meeting, explaining how the state has gone about crafting the board of commissioners to fit the needs of the county.
Tarvin said he led a study on the board of commissioners form of government by contacting counties across the state about issues they've had, and researching stipulations and rules that could potentially protect the board. He also helped to draft the board's operating structure and determine the district maps.
Voters in each of the four districts — which boil down to the areas containing Rossville, Chickamauga, LaFayette and Lookout Mountain — will elect their commissioner. Additionally, voters countywide will elect an at-large chair who will run specifically for the position.
The representatives for districts 1 and 2 (Rossville and Chickamauga, respectively) will serve two-year terms. Those representing the other districts as well as the at-large chair will serve four-year terms.
Tarvin said the chair can spend up to $25,000 a year without board approval. This eliminates large spending dictated by one single elected official, which was a concern of citizens following Bebe Heiskell's 16-year tenure as sole commissioner, he continued.
The districts were determined based on population size, with a max difference of 100 people, and the location of the unincorporated areas, with each district containing one.
The district lines are expected to shift slightly in accordance with the next census count, Tarvin noted.
The four commissioners representing the districts will each make $12,000 a year. The chair will be a full-time employee and will make $100,000 or $500 more than the next-highest-paid county employee, whichever is more. Currently, the highest-paid employee is Sheriff Steve Wilson, who makes roughly $118,000.
To begin a meeting, a quorum of at least three members must be present. Each decision, whether it be a resolution, ordinance or amendment, will have to be supported by at least three commissioners in order to pass.
At the time of the informational meeting on Oct. 29, 11 candidates had declared for the various district and chair positions, including current Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield, who is running to be the at-large chair.
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