Widening a rift that is forming within Columbia County's Republican party, local party leaders say they'll put two questions about the potential restructuring of the county government on the July 18 ballot, four months before local legislators had planned to present their own questions to voters.
"I think they are overreacting," state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez, said of the party's move. "I'm a little disappointed the party is doing this without getting the citizens task force's input. That was the reason the commission and everyone set that up."
The questions are expected to gauge public sentiment on the addition of a countywide elected chief executive officer. The questions would not serve as a referendum on the issue but could be used to direct commissioners and local legislators toward the citizens' preferred form of government.
Republican Party Chairman Alvin Starks on Friday officially presented his party's questions to the county's board of elections.
"When we have elected officials that are not doing the party's business, my job is to protect the party," Mr. Starks said. "If I have an opportunity or a mechanism in which I can aid the party on getting its business taken care of, I'm going to do that.
"We are not taking a position that we are just at odds with the elected officials. But by the same token, you are not going to go into the cow pasture and scoop anything up and stick it in our face and tell us it is ice cream when we know better."
The July questions have touched off another battle of words between members of the legislative delegation and the local party -- another round in the political war that has raged since news of discussions about the changes first broke in January.
"I'm disappointed because it is obvious that this is just pettiness and trying to dictate an answer and then trying to call it a legitimate question, and that is absolutely not true," said Mr. Harbin, who has seen one of the July questions, which includes a $75,000 to $100,000 salary range for the CEO position. "It is not a legitimate question. No one can have an answer to that until the citizens task force has done its study."
But Mr. Starks said the delegation already has phrased the questions for the November ballot, essentially eliminating the need for the task force.
"There are a lot of things here that just don't add up," he said. "If this was going to be a legitimate committee with a legitimate mission, then these questions would have come after the findings of this group."
In an effort to gain public input on the changes, county commissioners and other elected officials appointed a 15-member task force last month. The task force -- charged with looking at government structure in counties similar to Columbia County -- has an Aug. 30 deadline for an initial report and a Sept. 5 deadline for final recommendations.
That deadline does not allow enough time to disseminate the task force's findings, Mr. Starks said.
"If there were better communication between officials and the party, this whole thing could have been handled differently and this whole thing could really have a tremendous investigative report if it were a concerted effort that was inclusive of the parties, the citizenship and the elected officials," Mr. Starks said. "That has not happened, and that is not going to happen."
Task force Chairman Ed Rees said the group will meet for the first time at 7 p.m. May 8 at the Evans Government Center. Representatives from the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia and from the University of Georgia will attend the meeting.
"I want all our meetings to be working meetings and have something people can chew on," Mr. Rees said, adding that the committee may be split into two sections: one to look locally and one to look outside the county.
"What's striking is when you look at the list of counties in the state that are either our size or larger, all of them have somebody elected countywide, either full time or part time," he said. "Maybe keeping up with the Joneses is not the right reason to do things, but if they know something that we could benefit from, why don't we take a look at it?"
The county has five part-time commissioners and elects a chairman from within. The CEO would handle the daily operations of the county. A county administrator, hired by the commission, now handles those duties.
The following two questions will be presented by the Republican party on the July 18 ballot.
Yes or No: "Do you agree with our current form of county government composed of five commissioners elected from separate districts with the chairperson being elected from the board membership at an annual salary of $10,500?"
Yes or No: "Do you favor a change in the governing authority of Columbia County to include a full time commission chairperson with a salary range of $75,000 to $100,000 plus additional expenses to be elected at large, plus five part time commissioners to be elected from separate districts?"
Reach Jason B. Smith at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 115, or email@example.com.