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Republican Walker County commissioner candidate Shannon Whitfield, center, applauds with supporters as favorable results arrive at an election return party at the Bank of Lafayette's community room on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Lafayette, Ga.
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Shannon Whitfield

Walker County's next commissioner believes the best form of local government sits next door.

Shannon Whitfield, who will take office Jan. 1, said last week he is "leaning toward" shifting from a single commissioner to a five-person board, with one elected official working full-time to manage day-to-day business. The other four would earn part-time salaries, working only during commission meetings.

Whitfield's inspiration? Dade County, where this style of representation resides.

He believes this structure — a "four plus one" government — would be the easiest way to transition from the county's current setup: a sole commissioner who makes every decision, without a vote.

"That's the easiest [type of government] to transition to from a sole commissioner," Whitfield said of the Dade County model. "It gives the legislative balance of power that citizens are telling us is important. It gives checks and balances overall for budget spending, purchasing of assets, selling of assets — all of those major decisions."

Under the leadership of Bebe Heiskell, most Walker County residents became disillusioned with the sole commissioner government. Including here, there are only eight counties in Georgia that use this structure. And Georgia is the only state in the country that allows for a sole commissioner.

Heiskell lost her bid for a fifth term in November, winning 12 percent of the vote in a three-person race. Whitfield won with 73 percent of the support.

In a referendum during the county's Republican primary in May, three out of four voters opposed the sole-commissioner government. That referendum was nonbinding, but it was a useful measuring stick for local politicians.

After the primary, Whitfield supported a shift in Walker County's form of government. And when he takes office, he said, he will push for the change by sending proposed legislation to State Rep. John Deffenbaugh, R-Lookout Mountain; State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga; and State Rep. Steve Tarvin, R-Chickamauga.

If the legislation passes, Walker County residents could vote in 2018 on whether they want to change from a sole commissioner government to the "four plus one" board of commissioners. This time, the vote would be binding.

There are several different board of commissioner-style governments. In Catoosa County, for example, voters pick five commissioners who meet twice a month. The commissioners hire a county manager, who runs the day-to-day operations.

Whitfield said Walker County voters wouldn't like that model because they don't pick the manager: They only pick the commissioners who pick the manager.

Walker County Republican Party chairman Matt Williamson and GOP Rossville precinct chairman Mike Cameron, who is in charge of a local study committee on the issue, agree with Whitfield's assessment. The three met Wednesday to review Dade County's charter, looking at the finer points of their local government.

"This might be the easiest to transition to," Williamson said.

Under the Dade County model, people would elect four commissioners and a county executive, who also serves as the head of the commission. The Dade executive, Ted Rumley, works at the county office every day. Just like Heiskell does in Walker County. And just like Whitfield will do when he takes office Jan. 1.

In Dade County, the executive makes $87,000 per year. In Walker County, the sole commissioner makes about $110,000, according to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

Unlike in Walker County, the other four elected officials in Dade County can hold the executive in check. The five-person commission votes on changes and contracts. The executive can't spend more than $10,000 without majority approval from the other commissioners.

Rumley prefers an executive over a manager because his position is elected, meaning the person has to come from within Dade County. A county manager, on the other hand, can be hired from far away.

But, Rumley conceded, his line of thinking only works when someone in the county is qualified for the position — a job that is more difficult than some voters realize.

"It's either the best kind of government or the worst," he said. "It all depends on the person you've got in government. You've got him for four years. You can't fire him. You've got to really think about the person before you vote him in."

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

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