Originally created 06/19/00

Commission debates adding chairman seat



For the two years he served as chairman of Columbia County Commission, Jim Whitehead's days started at 5:30 a.m. And they usually ended 14 or 15 hours later.

"It was very gratifying, but it was one of the most frustrating times ever," said Mr. Whitehead, who now serves as commission vice chairman.

The duties of commission chairman needed 20 to 25 hours a week. His business - Jim Whitehead Tire - needed twice that.

"This is a county that is going to get bigger and bigger," he said. ". . . This is a tremendous county with a tremendous amount of paperwork already."

Easing paperwork is one reason he supports adding an at-large elected chairman to the county's five-member commission.

As the county's population nears 100,000, that's one of the options being considered by local leaders. They already have appointed a 15-member task force to study changes, which range from adding an at-large, elected chairman to expanding the commission to as many as nine members.

It's a public discussion that has driven a wedge between some members of the local Republican party. And it's an issue that is long from settled: There'll be two referendums - one placed on next month's Republican primary ballot and one that everyone will vote on in November - to give voters a say on changing the local government structure.

And though nothing is official, it's the study process that's important now, local officials said.

"Columbia County is brave enough to say, `Things are great, but are there ways we can do it better?,'ƒ" said state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez.

Now, each of the five commissioners is elected from an individual district. Then, the commission chairman is elected from within the commission. And the bulk of the day-to-day duties are handled by County Administrator Steve Szablewski.

"If the people want a more responsive and efficient government, I think we should provide that," said state Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling.

That's one of the main concerns commission Chairman Pat Farr hears from constituents. Under the present government, residents get one vote for their district commissioner. The addition of an at-large elected chairman would allow another vote - and another set of ears for their problems.

"That's where I see there may be a need for an elected chairman," Mr. Farr said.

If the chairman were elected at large, Columbia County would follow a trend of some of Georgia's larger counties. Of the 19 counties with a population of more than 90,000, only three - Columbia, Fayette and Forsyth - still elect a chairman from within the commission. And each of the 13 counties with more than 100,000 people has an at-large elected chairman.

But the addition of an elected chairman also means another layer of government to some residents. That troubles local GOP leaders in a county where nearly every elected office is filled by a Republican.

The discussions of adding a chairman go against bylaws of the local, state and national Republican Party, said Republican Party Chairman Alvin Starks. In fact, it violates the first tenet mentioned in the governing principles of the Columbia County Republican Party, said Mr. Starks, one of the plan's most vocal critics.

It also violates a couple more: lowering taxes - the salary must come from somewhere - and minimal government at all levels

"That is everything wrong with the addition of that position," Mr. Starks said.

Mr. Starks refers to an at-large elected chairman as a "czar" - aimed at ensuring the commission is on the "political straight and narrow and doing what is in the best interest of the county."

But, he said, it is also a position that is not needed.

"We desire to work harder, not stronger," he said. "There is nothing needed in the expansion of Columbia County government that the current design of the governing authority of the county cannot handle if you have smart, conscientious, citizen-oriented folks in those positions. It does not take a posse to run a county if you've got smart people in those positions."

Mr. Starks and other residents are still stinging from the way discussions of changing the local government arose - perceived as discussions based in Atlanta with the legislative delegation that filtered back to Columbia County through the political grapevine.

But that's six months in the past now, and task force Chairman Ed Rees said it's time to move on.

"How the question came up is really immaterial to me," he said.

Since 1978, the county commission structure has changed three times: including a five-member board, plus the chairman, elected at-large; to a five-member board elected from within five districts with a chairman elected from within the commission in 1993.

But some politicians put more emphasis on the people in county government rather than the structure.

"I believe this county is successful, not particularly because of the system, but because of the people," Mr. Brush said. "That sometimes overcomes deficiencies in the system."

Reach Jason B. Smith at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 115.

Meeting

What: Columbia County Government Task Force

When: Tonight at 7 p.m.

Where: Appling courthouse