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Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell, center, talks with Betty Keys, right, and Barbara Ashburn, left, during the Walker County Republican Party Convention on Saturday at the Walker County Civic Center in Rock Spring, Ga. The party voted at the convention against a ballot measure that would let voters decide whether the county should have more than a single commissioner.

ROCK SPRING, Ga. -- People in Walker County aren't going to get a chance to vote on their style of government next year.

Delegates at the county's Republican convention on Saturday rejected, 57-53, a resolution that would have put the sole commissioner form of government up for debate. There was no debate or discussion before the vote.

If the resolution had passed, voters would have seen a referendum on the ballot during next year's GOP primary asking them if they wanted to be represented by multiple elected commissioners, like in Catoosa, Dade and most other Georgia counties.

Some residents say Bebe Heiskell, Walker County's commissioner for 14 years, has too much unchecked power. An online petition asking state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, to let residents vote on the issue gained 1,800 signatures last year.

But it's unclear whether that group speaks for Walker County. People outside the county could have signed the online petition. People inside the county could have signed it several times.

Mullis said last month that Heiskell's critics represent a vocal minority and that none of the sole-commissioner critics has actually met with him.

Though imperfect, a referendum during next year's primary could have provided concrete evidence about how the public feels. In 2012, 12,000 Walker County residents voted in the primary. That's 30 percent of the local voters who turned out for the general election.

Alan Painter, who unsuccessfully ran for the state House of Representatives in 2012, introduced the resolution. He expected it to pass, saying the people's right to vote on these issues is "part of the fabric of our society."

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Dean Kelley calls to order the Walker County Republican Party Convention on Saturday at the Walker County Civic Center in Rock Spring, Ga.

"I'm disappointed that the voters of Walker County will not have that freedom," he said. "Anyway, the dialogue in the community will continue."

Matt Williamson, who was elected county Republican Party chairman by two votes Saturday, said he and the rest of the party's executive committee could still introduce the referendum on next year's ballot. But he won't, because of this vote.

Delegates passed a separate resolution saying Heiskell should give residents a copy of the county's line-item budget. Right now, upon receiving an open records request, county officials provide a version of the budget that shows only the total amount of money each department receives.

Heiskell said a line-item budget is too thick and takes too much time to provide. But the publicly available version has left some confused. A vague category called "other financial services," for example, received an unexplained $1 million increase in last year's budget.

This year's convention in the Walker County Civic Center drew 116 voters, up significantly from 67 at the convention two years ago.

Mullis and state Rep. Steve Tarvin, R-Chickamauga, were absent, however, though an aide for Tarvin attended. The senator and representative were scheduled to make speeches, but they bowed out, saying they worked in the Legislature through Friday night and into the morning.

Among the voting delegates, Heiskell sat at a table with others from the Chattanooga Valley region of the county.

In an interview after the vote, she defended the sole commissioner form of government, saying she is more invested in the job than representatives in multi-commissioner governments. She said Walker County's form of government is also more efficient.

Even so, she said, she didn't care how the delegates voted on the issue and believes the form of government is only in question because of next year's election.

"It's beating-Bebe time," Heiskell said. "People are getting ready to qualify to run. If I were decrepit, I wouldn't run. But I'm not. My mind works, and so do my legs."

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

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