Effingham County voters may get to decide if they want to keep the county commission at-large position — and if they want the position to be full-time.
Commissioners, in a 5-1 vote, approved a resolution asking for the introduction of local legislation. Commissioners are asking that voters, in next year’s presidential preference primary, be asked if the commissioners continue to operate as a six-person board, with a chairman elected at-large, or revert back to the five-person board.
“The reason we’re bringing this up now is because time is of the essence,” said Commissioner Phil Kieffer, who asked that the item be placed on Tuesday night’s agenda.
Kieffer added the resolution needed to be adopted in order for it to go to the General Assembly, which begins its reapportionment special session Aug. 15.
“That needs to be approved then in order to make it on the ballot for qualifying,” he said.
Kieffer, who said he voted for introducing an at-large chairman, contends that voters didn’t know what the position would become when they voted for it. He said he’s had several constituents pass along their concerns to him.
“It essentially goes back to what it was,” he said of the board, if the proposed legislation is placed on the ballot and passed.
The question, if it makes it through the state lawmakers, is aimed at being on the presidential preference primary.
Chairman Dusty Zeigler, who was the first at-large chairman elected in 2008, voted against the resolution — but he also asked that another question be placed on the ballot. Zeigler wants voters to determine if they want the at-large chairman position, if kept, to be a full-time position. Currently, it is a part-time position; Zeigler is a member of the staff at Effingham County High School and is also the defensive coordinator for the Rebels football team.
“I think if this matter is going to go to a vote, it can be reinforced even further by asking the people not only whether they want it but if they want it to be a full-time position,” he said, “and having the chairperson involved in day-to-day activities. Beyond that, nothing more would change.”
Commissioner Steve Mason said a combination of both might be the best outcome.
“The whole idea we’re talking about is has the chairman at-large position helped the county,” he said. “Part of the goal is to cut the cost of government. We haven’t seen a great increase in having this position. Dusty does have a good point — it may not be a bad idea to have the chairman be a full-time position.”
Commissioner Vera Jones asked that the board be given more time to have more clarity in the language of the proposition.
“I prefer to do that and hash it out and cover all the scenarios instead of voting on something tonight when it’s the first time I’ve heard of it,” she said.
Commissioners eventually voted to table Zeigler’s proposal until their Aug. 2 meeting.
“To me, it sounds like we’re asking the public to do away with the position or make it full-time,” said Commissioner Bob Brantley.
Zeigler voiced his concern that there wasn’t more discussion about the future of the at-large position.
“Quite honestly, I’m a little bit disappointed that you can’t make this decision right now,” he said. “Six months ago, when all of this broke out, I had the impression that we were going to have some good discussion and dialogue about how to make this position better. To me, it’s simple.”
Jones said she didn’t make a rash decision without learning more about a full-time chairmanship.
Commissioners, in their first meeting of the year and in the first meeting for the three newest members, voted to explore a home rule option. Under that proposal, the chairman’s voting power would be restricted to break ties. Currently, the chairman is able to vote any issues before the board.
By placing the question on keeping the at-large chairman on the presidential preference primary, Kieffer also believes there will be a stronger turnout. Only 13 percent of the county’s voters took part in the July 2006, and voter turnout for the last presidential primary, Kieffer pointed out, was more than 50 percent.
But what the state legislators will be able to consider along with redistricting when Gov. Nathan Deal convenes the upcoming special session isn’t known. Kieffer noted there is a possibility the General Assembly may not take up the matter of this local legislation.
“It’s kind of up in the air,” he said.
Voters overwhelmingly approved a measure in 2006 instituting the at-large chairman, with more than 79 percent of those voting on the issue in favor of it. The legislation enacting the at-large post, House Bill 728, was signed into law in May 2007 by then Gov. Sonny Perdue. It passed the House 137-0 and the state Senate 49-0.
Under the legislation, the at-large chairman sets the agenda for commissioners’ meetings and acts as the spokesman for the board. The chairman also is allowed to vote on all matters before the board and any vote that results in a deadlock will be declared a “no vote.” A “no vote” does allow for the issue at hand to be brought before the commissioners again.
Zeigler said he could recall only a couple of occasions that resulted in a tie vote among the commissioners. In January’s meeting, he said the tie vote serves to show commissioners that an issue deserves further introspection.
The previous board of commissioners also had concerns about the legislation and the position both in 2007 and in 2008, before voters chose the first countywide-elected chairman.