At least one Georgia politician is ready to potentially change Walker County's form of government.
After 75 percent of voters indicated during the May 24 primary that they don't support the county's sole commissioner system, state Rep. Steve Tarvin, R-Chickamauga, said he will study options for a new format. He will examine the county's demographics and talk with other local government leaders in Georgia before announcing what he thinks is best for Walker County's future.
Then, he plans to help write a resolution in the Georgia Legislature to put a question on a ballot in 2018. Do people really prefer a new type of government instead of the sole commissioner format? If a majority in Walker County votes yes for a second time, Tarvin said, a collection of local politicians can vie for the new board of commissioner seats in 2020.
"The people, rightly or wrongly, feel disenfranchised," Tarvin said. "The people that elected me said they want a board of commissioners, so we're going to move forward."
For several years, a group of residents pushed for a nonbinding referendum about the county's form of government, many of them unhappy with Commissioner Bebe Heiskell after a series of property tax increases and a lingering debt to Erlanger Health System. The referendum would serve as a public opinion poll, letting politicians know where people stood on the issue.
During an October meeting, the Walker County Republican Party voted to put the referendum on the ballot this year, and two weeks ago, 4,505 of 5,985 voters said they wanted to move away from the sole commissioner form of government.
In order to act on the election results, though, supporters of the change need more allies than Tarvin.
You can't put a binding referendum on the 2018 ballot without passing a local act in the state Legislature. And you can't pass a local act without the approval of the local delegation. And in Walker County, the local delegation consists of Tarvin; state Rep. John Deffenbaugh, R-Lookout Mountain; and state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga.
Publicly, the other two legislators have hesitated to throw full support behind the results.
Mullis did not return a call seeking comment this week, though he told the Walker County Messenger, "We recognize that it was a strong victory — but in a low voter turnout. So we will take it seriously and we will get together to see which direction we go in. But I'm not ready to draw the road map."
Of the registered voters in Walker County, 22.3 percent participated in the May election. That rate is lower than participation in the 2012 primary (36.8 percent) but higher than that of the 2008 primary (17.7 percent).
While more people will vote in the November general election, Walker County GOP Chairman Matt Williamson said that legally the party could only put the nonbinding referendum on a primary ballot. Tarvin, meanwhile, said you should evaluate the election based on who actually voted. Those are the people who participated in the democratic process, he said.
Deffenbaugh, meanwhile, said it's not his responsibility to change the form of government in Walker County. He said he won't act on the election results unless the county commissioner asks him to. Come November, that could be Bebe Heiskell or Shannon Whitfield.
"It's none of my concern," he said. "I'm not a Walker resident. Until the [commissioner] election occurs, I don't know what anybody can do. If the person elected wants to change it, they can certainly do that. But until the election happens, there's nothing that can be done."
Williamson said Deffenbaugh's approach is not how the process is supposed to work: Deffenbaugh, Mullis and Tarvin are responsible for any local acts that get passed in the legislature, which would move the process forward.
"I understand why people are frustrated when they hear statements from our legislative delegation that it is the sole commissioner who must request them to take action," Williamson said. "The legislative delegation is elected by the people, not the local government. They should be responsive to the people, not the local government."
Deffenbaugh said he has not heard from Heiskell or Whitfield about how they feel about the election, though both candidates told the Times Free Press they support a change to the form of government, based on last month's election results.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfree press.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.