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Views on chairman post aired
jerry smith 2
Former Effingham County commission chairman Jerry Smith offers his views on the chairman at-large position as state Sen. Jack Hill, state Rep. Ann Purcell and state Rep. Jon Burns listen. The legislators listened as 13 citizens of a crowd of approximately 50 gave their stances on the chairman at-large Tuesday night. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

As Effingham County’s General Assembly delegation, citizens offered their thoughts on the county commission’s at-large chairman seat Tuesday night.

In a forum sponsored by the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce at the Effingham Career Academy, approximately 50 people — mostly in opposition to the position — turned out.

“I don’t believe it’s doing the good it was intended to do,” said Delmons White.

Many of those who spoke in support of eliminating the position confessed that they originally backed creating the post. Voters approved the at-large chairman post in 2006 and the first countywide at-large chairman, Dusty Zeigler, was elected in 2008. Zeigler did not attend Tuesday night’s forum.
“I was part of the people who blindly went ahead and voted for the chairman at-large before we knew anything about what he was going to be,” said Gussie Nease. “And that’s the problem with the law — it’s not the chairman at-large, it’s how it’s written and what his duties and who we elected. We need to thank our representatives for doing what we asked them to do, and ask them to look at it again.”

Ruth Lee also said she regretted voting for the at-large chairman position five years ago.

“When this matter of chairman at large was discussed and brought to the citizens, I was a strong supporter. Little did I know what we were asking for,” she said. “I recognize I have flip-flopped on this position. But I maintain you let experience change your mind when experience indicates you were wrong in the first instance. We all have to live and learn and we have learned about this chairman at large as it stands.”

Lee said she envisioned the position being served by someone who was retired and could devote his time to county matters. She also said she was unaware the chairman at-large would be voting on matters before the commission.

“I did not envision a chairman that would vote on any matter,” she said. “I understand the framers of the bill thought creating this requirement of a super majority would make the county function better. It has in fact made it more difficult. The chairman and the commissioner could cancel each other out. I ask our legislators — would they like to have all their votes had to be by a two-third majority.

“It was one of those things where you were asked to vote for a measure, and then you can find out what’s in it. We found out from practice we didn’t like what was in it.

The chairman at-large position has not served us well.”

Others who spoke against the at-large chairman post called into question how much money is being spent on it — the chairman draws a small salary and benefits — and how much it has really helped the county.

“I’ve seen a lot of activity going on, and he’s never there to represent us,” said Mack Thompson. “I feel like this taxpayer’s money for the chairman. I don’t feel like we need a chairman at-large. I feel like this is taxpayer’s money being wasted.”

Said Christopher Moutray: “As long as it’s been instituted, we haven’t seen a real benefit. The money being spent doesn’t seem logical. You’re going to have two votes for any one district, here and now or in the future. It seems to me a little unfair to the other districts.”

Pete Lancaster, who also voted for the present system, said he wants to go back to having the commissioners choose their own chairman.

“We don’t have what I intended for us to have,” he said. “I didn’t intend for the chairman to vote on everything that comes up. The chairman should only vote when there’s a tie. The chairman should not even get into a discussion, except to give information or a point of order. We’ve had nothing but a circus up there since then.”

But there were others who spoke in favor of keeping the at-large chairman post. Former county administrator Lamar Crosby and former county commission chairman Jerry Smith endorsed having an at-large commission chairman.

Crosby said that before the current system was enacted, the populace didn’t have a voice as to who the chairman of the county commission would be.

“He’s elected by the entire county to represent all of us, every single of us,” he said. “He’s not form a particular district. Think of it as a mayor of a city — the mayor may live in a district but he represents the entire community. It gives the county one person the state or the federal government to look at as representing the county.”

Crosby and Smith also said having an at-large chairman enables state and federal officials to deal with an elected representative of the entire county, giving the community continuity and consistency in those meetings.

“I may be the only guy in the room who has sat in this seat,” Smith said, “and I want to tell you, you need a chairman at large.”

Rick Rafter also spoke in favor of keeping the position and said it may be better to make it a full-time position.

“We need a full-time person to be our chairman at-large, a full-time person who is a paid position. That’s what we really want him to be,” he said. “It should be a full-time position, not a part-time position where we’re imposing on someone. We’re not getting the representation we need locally and statewide because it’s not a full-time position.”

Crosby also said that the constituents of a district whose commissioner was chosen as chairman didn’t think their area was getting represented effectively because that commissioner was more concerned with serving the county than his district.

“A lot of times that person got unelected in the next election,” he said.

Voting issues

But the current setup, with the chairman allowed to vote on all issues and giving the commission six votes, is seen as a hurdle by the position’s opponents.

“The system we have in place now requires a two-thirds majority to pass any legislation,” said Mickey Kicklighter, chairman of the Effingham Republican Party. “You will not find a democracy anywhere in the world that requires a two-thirds majority to pass legislation.”

Added Lancaster: “I don’t believe all the people had a full and complete understanding of how it would be operating. Trying to do anything politically with an even number of votes is extremely difficult. I don’t support the position. There’s a lot of things I don’t like about it.”

Current commissioners also weighed in on the at-large chairman post and detailed their problems with it, including the possibility of tie votes from a full commission and difficulties in setting the agenda.

“The problem we’re having right now is the definition to set the agenda,” said Commissioner Steve Mason. “What we have now is the chairman says he has the ultimate authority on what goes on that agenda. The even number of votes is an issue. There haven’t been a lot of things that have come up where that has been a stumbling block. But it can be.”

Commissioner Vera Jones, who also served as chairman of the school board, said electing the chairman from among the representatives worked well for the board of education.

“It’s an unnecessary position,” she said. “Being internally elected has proven to be more effective for the taxpayers. Government does not have to be slow and it does not have to be expensive.”

Commissioner Phil Kieffer said the at-large chairman position represents an unnecessary growth of government.

“When government grows, it’s hard to shrink it,” he said. “And to me, that’s big.”

Reggie Loper, the only commissioner who was on the board when the countywide vote was taken to approve the at-large chairman, voiced his long-standing opposition to the position.

“For the last four years, we haven’t had a lot of continuity,” he said. “I was opposed to the chairman at large in 2006. I’m still opposed to it. We don’t need it. It’s just an extra burden to the taxpayer. You shouldn’t have a tie vote because it messes up the taxpayers of Effingham County.”

Back to the voters

Speakers asked legislators to allow Effingham citizens the chance to vote on the at-large position again.

“We need to let the citizens of Effingham County vote on this,” said Jack Harris. “We don’t need to let three, six, or a dozen people decide what to do. We need to let the citizens decide.”

Said Nease: “We need to thank our representatives for doing what we asked them to do, and ask them to look at it again.”

Mason said that if the issue goes back to the voters and they opt to keep the at-large chairman, he would look to see its role re-defined. He wants the chairman’s agenda power restructured to prioritizing the agenda, not setting it without input from commissioners. He also would like to see the at-large chairman’s voting power curtailed, to vote only in matters of a tie or when there is a minimum for a quorum.

“If the legislators think we need to put this to a referendum to let people vote on it again, I’m good with it 100 percent. The chairman at large has not been a good thing for the first four years, but I think that’s because of the person holding it rather than the position itself.”

State Rep. Ann Purcell said she’s gotten several phone calls and emails on both sides of the issue, and state Rep. Jon Burns said he learned plenty from the forum. Lawmakers were there only to listen and not to offer an opinion or give any indication as to what might be proposed in the upcoming General Assembly session.

“What I want is what the people of Effingham County want,” said state Sen. Jack Hill.