Shannon Whitfield promised to be Walker County's last sole commissioner. But he never said exactly when that would occur.
Whitfield released a taped statement Thursday night, promising to "clarify" his stance on the debate over the county's form of government. Voters will decide in a referendum Nov. 6 whether to ditch the sole commissioner structure for a board of elected officials, the way almost every county in the country operates.
But Whitfield's statement didn't exactly end debate over where he stands.
"If the people choose to retain a sole commissioner form of government, I will support that decision and continue to serve as your sole commissioner," he said in the 83-second-long video.
He didn't mention what he would do if the county switched to a board of commissioners. Asked about this Friday, he said in a statement, "If it is the desire of the citizens for me to lead a new team as the chairman, I would consider that option at that time."
Some of Whitfield's campaign supporters said they didn't know what to think about his announcement. Others were upset.
"You're riding the fence," said John Carpenter, first vice chairman of the Walker County Republican Party. "I don't like fence riders. Stand on your own merit, and go with what you believe in."
Leadership of the local Republican party has lobbied for years to move away from the sole commissioner structure, arguing it leaves the local government vulnerable to corruption.
Under former Commissioner Bebe Heiskell, the county held public meetings in the early afternoon, when most people could not attend. Sometimes, the meetings weren't announced until the morning of, without an agenda released to the public. Other times, important items were not even presented in front of the public — such as when Heiskell offered $770,000 in bonuses to employees if they took out their retirement benefits in her final months in office.
In May 2016, the Republican Party placed a non-binding referendum on the ballot during the primary, asking voters if they wanted to move to a five-member board of commissioners. Seventy-five percent of 5,983 voters said yes. State Rep. Steve Tarvin, R-Chickamauga, and State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, then passed a local act through the legislature, placing a new, binding referendum on next month's ballot.
If approved, the county will hold an election for a board of commissioners in 2020. The local government is modeled after Dade County's, with four commissioners representing different regions and a chairman elected by the full county. Like the current sole commissioner, the chairman will work full time and oversee day-to-day responsibilities. But the chairman will need support from at least half of the other four commissioners on key issues, including any purchases north of $25,000.
After the primary in 2016, Whitfield said he was OK with the county switching to a board of commissioners.
"People have lost confidence and trust in the sole form of government because we've not had transparency and accountability for a long time in Walker County government," he said in May 2016. "People are ready and are seeking for transparency."
That fall, as he challenged Heiskell, his team sent out mailers that called Whitfield "Walker County's Last Sole Commissioner."
Over the last two years, Whitfield has been popular, both as a candidate and a commissioner. In November 2016, he won with 73 percent of the vote against Heiskell and another candidate. In November 2017, after Whitfield requested a new 1 percent sales tax, voters approved a referendum with 70 percent of the vote.
But some early supporters said they have grown weary in the weeks leading up to this year's election, with the referendum on the line. During a Walker County Republican Party meeting in September, two people asked Whitfield whether he supported the change in government, now that he is the commissioner. Both times, he said he wanted to remain neutral on the issue, according to three people at the meeting.
Dean Kelley, coordinator of the Northwest Georgia Tea Party and a volunteer on Whitfield's 2016 campaign, wishes the commissioner was a stronger advocate for change right now. He felt Whitfield was clear cut on his position two years ago.
"For him to not come out for it now, that's disappointing," Kelley said.
Mike Cameron, chairman of the Walker County Republican Party and another Whitfield campaign volunteer, helped draft the new proposed form of government. He said he wasn't worried about Whitfield's stance right now.
"This is a referendum on a form of government," he said. "Not about a commissioner specifically."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.