Effingham County commissioners are scheduled to break ground today on the new jail and when they go into their regular meeting later this afternoon, they may take up the matter of a resolution opposing non-partisan elections for their seats.
The proposed resolution proclaims opposition to “all legislation requiring Effingham County to hold nonpartisan elections for County Commissioner and fervently requests that no such legislation be enacted into law.”
Commissioners discussed legislation pending in the General Assembly that could make several county offices non-partisan in nature. Currently, only the board of education, among countywide positions, is non-partisan.
“It’s important to me it does stay partisan,” Commissioner Forrest Floyd said of county commission elections. “The people I’ve talked to believe it should be.”
Said Commissioner Vera Jones: “Sometimes you need to make the resolution to let people know where you stand.”
A series of Senate bills has called for non-partisan elections in several offices — clerk of courts, district attorney, sheriff, tax commissioner and county commissioners. Sen. Buddy Carter (R-Pooler) pre-filed legislation that would put all those offices into non-partisan elections. That bill since has been separated into six pieces of legislation.
Carter’s bill on county commission elections has not been sent from the committee to which it was referred back to the Senate. Other bills on non-partisan elections have been given the go-ahead from the Senate Ethics Committee.
Some commissioners said they didn’t see the need to adopt a resolution declaring opposition to non-partisan commissioner elections, as long as SB 7 isn’t moving forward.
“I’m neutral on it, completely,” said Commissioner Steve Mason. “It’s not something I have a whole lot of heartburn about, one way or the other. I think there’s an argument for, at the local level, having city councils non-partisan. I don’t see the urgency for this.”
Commissioner Reggie Loper, whose wife Sherry is the current chairman of the county Republican Party, said it didn’t matter to him one way or another.
“I’m not going to do anything different if I’m a Democrat or a Republican,” he said. “It does not make any difference whatsoever to me.”
Chairman Wendell Kessler said the prevailing sentiment at a recent meeting he attended in Atlanta was that SB 7 would move forward but the process would include a referendum on whether such elections should be non-partisan.
Commssioner Phil Kieffer said having partisan elections helps voters understand where a candidate stands on issues.
“They don’t have time to learn about every candidate,” he said. “I’m probably the one in here who’s voting in a municipal elections in odd years and you don’t really know about those candidates. You can’t hold them accountable for anything unless you grill them individually before the election.”
Mickey Kicklighter, the former chairman of the Effingham County Republican Party, said the issue may stem from two sheriff’s races in the state where the candidates were not well-qualified.
“Nobody has explained to me why the party system could not adequately address that situation,” he said. “I believe getting away from the party system is a mistake. One, it gives you some basis upon which as to have some feeling to where candidates stand. Two, they are at last somewhat responsible and somewhat responsive to that party.”
Kicklighter also said studies have shown that non-partisan elections cut down on participation, both in potential voters and candidates.
“I think that may be the biggest issue against going to non-partisan elections,” he said.
Kessler said to his knowledge, the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia did not have a stand on the issue, and the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit district attorney believes “those who enforce the law should be nonpartisan, and those who create the law should be partisan.”
“Our sheriff has made his stand publicly clear he is for non-partisan elections for his office,” he said.
County coroner David Exley told Kessler he didn’t have a problem with his office being non-partisan, the chairman said.
“(He) said his clients really don’t care,” Kessler remarked. “He said his clients aren’t going to have a say one way or another.”