To their credit, Effingham County commissioners are stepping away from what is a dangerously bad precedent.
By failing to note who had voted for vice-chairman, the commissioners were faced with whether their vote on the vice-chairman for the next year was legitimately done.
The selection of vice chairman, chosen from among the five commissioners who are elected by district, has been accomplished not by voice vote but by written ballots. Commissioners are supposed to initial their ballots, so the minutes can reflect who voted for whom.
The problem — at least, internally — is that the commissioners did not affix their initials to the ballots, rendering them equivalent to a secret ballot.
“It was not our intention to have a secret ballot,” said assistant county attorney Eric Gotwalt.
The larger problem was that the voting was done with pencil and paper and not in a more public fashion. It may not seem that voting for a vice-chairman is that big of a deal — but any vote taken is a big deal, and there are times when being vice-chairman carries with it responsibility.
Take the commissioners’ most recent meeting, for example. With Chairman Dusty Zeigler not on hand, that left the duties of conducting the meeting to Vice-Chairman Reggie Loper. Loper, chosen as vice-chairman at the start of the Jan. 3 meeting, received three of the six votes cast. Technically, he did not get a majority, but rather received a plurality of the votes, since no other commissioner received more than two.
In defense of the written ballot votes, Gotwalt cited Deriso v. Cooper, a 1980 case involving the practices of school boards and their votes.
“There is nothing wrong with a written ballot,” Gotwalt remarked in citing the state Supreme Court upholding the county commission’s long-standing practice. A written ballot, so affirmed the justices, can be taken in an open meeting, as well as in a closed meeting.
But commissioners seemed to have had a change of heart as to how conduct their votes for vice-chairman in the future.
“I prefer a regular, open vote,” declared Commissioner Vera Jones, who added she questioned the practice last year when the board of commissioners chose Loper to be vice-chairman. “I don’t think any of us mind. We want to be as open and transparent as possible. Appearances matter. We want the public to know we want to be open.”
Appearances do matter. Commissioners will make more important decisions than the choice of a vice-chairman, but the manner in which those decisions are conducted shouldn’t be left open for questions or speculation.
There is a push afoot to have the commission chairman chosen from among the five commissioners elected by their respective districts and not by a popular vote from the more than 28,000 registered voters. The more people, who can take part in government, the better, and the more open that government is, the better.
At least the commissioners have opted to head in the right direction with a more open approach. We hope they continue down that path.