DALTON, Ga. — After Whitfield County commissioners asked their state lawmakers to change the rules, letting them run for re-election indefinitely, they're not sure where their request stands.
In particular, they're confused by state Sen. Chuck Payne's public comments.
The commission voted 4-1 on Monday to end term limits. Now, commissioners are not allowed to run for office for more than three consecutive terms, which lasts 12 years. To put the proposal in effect, the county's state representatives and senator must pass a local act through the legislature in Atlanta.
On Wednesday, Payne told the Dalton Daily Citizen-News he doesn't support the request. He wants the commissioners to put the item on a referendum first, letting the general public vote.
"We need to make sure this is what the community wants," Payne said.
But commissioners Harold Brooker and Greg Jones told the Times Free Press that Payne struck a different tone in private. Last week, they said, Payne told them he supported a local act to end term limits for the commissioners. (Payne, R-Dalton, did not return multiple calls from the Times Free Press this week.)
"He would go along with doing all term limits," Jones said, remembering his conversation with Payne. " ... He could get behind all term limits going down. He told Harold and [County Commissioner Barry Robbins] the same thing. We figured, 'Yeah, if this is what he wants, this is how we'll word it.'"
Even if Payne were to go along with the request, the local act still might not pass. The commissioners also need backing from two of the three state representatives who cover the area: Kasey Carpenter, Jason Ridley and Steve Tarvin.
Ridley and Tarvin did not return multiple calls seeking comment. But Carpenter, R-Dalton, doesn't support the proposal. He said he talked to about 50 residents after the commission's vote.
"Nobody's for it," he said. "It's kind of hard, as a representative, to listen to your people and at least not have somebody on the other side. And literally, I haven't found one person."
This debate started two weeks ago, during a commission work session. Georgia Republican Party 14th Congressional District Chairman Ed Painter proposed the change. At the time, he said the rule should apply only to commissioners completing their third terms who wanted to run for the commission chairperson seat.
The concrete effect? Brooker, who has been in office since 2008, could run for chairperson in 2020. He would be able to challenge the current chairperson, Lynn Laughter.
Brooker and Painter deny they coordinated the proposal to create a viable challenger to Laughter.
"People think I'm doing this for Harold," Painter said. "I'm doing it on principal."
Brooker said he would not run for the chairperson seat, which covers the whole county: "I'd like to run in my district again if I could. If they say, 'No,' I'll stay home. I can get 15 cows on the farm and make just as much money as I do on the commission now."
But Jevin Jensen, a resident who spoke against the proposal Monday, said the legislation should be called the "Harold Brooker Bill" because he is the only one impacted. Laughter, meanwhile, told the Times Free Press she wondered whether Brooker and Painter were doing this to challenge her.
"What Ed brought forward affected nobody but Brooker in the next four years," she said. "But I don't know."
After the work session two weeks ago, Painter amended his proposal. Instead of allowing candidates such as Brooker to run only for the chairperson seat, he said all term limits should end. That was his goal from the start. He believes people can vote against any candidate they don't like — a natural term limit.
He said he made the original, more specific proposal because he wanted to take baby steps. He believed people would go for a small change, eliminating term limits for one seat the first time around. After some conversations with friends and commissioners, he realized a broad change was easier to understand.
After Painter's presentation Monday, Laughter was the only commissioner to vote against it.
"We should have term limits locally, nationally and statewide," she said. "The constitution did not intend for career politicians."
Jones and Commissioner Roger Crossen, who voted to end term limits, told the Times Free Press they actually think the restrictions are a good thing. But they went along with ending that good thing because they believe the rules are not fair. Other elected positions, such as the sheriff, do not face term limits.
"I'm not against term limits," Crossen said. "It just should be for everybody."
Jones supports putting the issue on a referendum. But he wants the results of the vote to apply for all county elected positions.
Brooker said term limits unfairly restrict experienced elected officials. Brooker, 77, has been a commissioner, off and on, for 22 years. He was first elected in 1971.
"It's hard to go to a school and get that kind of experience," he said. "I think we've done decent."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.