Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Written 6/5/2007

Why We Don't Need Staggered Terms

Oconee County voters who turn out to vote on June 19 for the 10th Congressional race may be surprised to find another issue on the ballot.

Voters also will be asked if they want to stagger the terms of the members of the Board of Commissioners, instead of choosing all five members of the Board at the same time, as is now the case. In a given election year, two or three members of the Board would be up for election; two years later, the remainder would be elected.

The goal of the initiative is to keep voters from turning out all five members of the Board at any election.

Proponents are seeking consistency and predictability in Board decision-making.

Opponents aren’t afraid of change. They trust the voters.

The issue is on the ballot because the current Board said it was afraid of big changes. The resolution calling for staggered terms passed unanimously by the Board on October 4, 2005, said a “lack of continuity and loss of institutional knowledge would cause harm detrimental to the citizens of Oconee County.”

Oconee County Commissioners have talked about moving to staggered terms since at least 2001.

The Board finally decided to initiate the change after Jim Luke defeated incumbent Johnny Pritchett and Chuck Horton defeated incumbent Bubber Wilkes in the primary in 2004 and two other incumbents, Don Norris and Margaret Hale, were forced into a runoff. Hale and Norris survived the runoff (Norris by only 129 votes), but for the three weeks between the July 20 primary and the August 10 runoff, it appeared that Chairman Melvin Davis could be facing four new Commissioners.

Oconee County has a very strong Chairman system, and the four members of the Commission are the only real week-to-week check on the Chairman’s activities.

Davis has been particularly strong in arguing for staggered terms. He was quoted in the Athens Banner-Herald just before the Board voted in 2005 saying “One advantage of having staggered terms is that it provides continuity and experience on the Board.”

Had voters tossed out Norris and Hale, as they nearly did, they would have sent a strong signal that they didn’t want that kind of continuity and were seeking a different kind of expertise.

Expertise is of many sorts, of course, and one of them is expertise in how the system operates. If citizens toss out all the Commissioners, they are saying they want things done differently. They want “outsiders,” rather than “insiders,” making the decisions.

Commissioners get training in the basics of governance from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and other sources once they are elected. They learn how things are done locally from the other Commissioners and from the County’s department heads.

Chairman Davis likes to point out that a majority of Georgia’s counties have staggered terms. He’s right. Of the 150 counties with more than one member on the board, 108 have staggered terms, according to statistics compiled by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia for 2006.

All that says is that other Boards of Commissioners also don’t trust the citizens who elect them.

Davis doesn’t like to mention that an even larger majority of those counties (128 of 150) elect board members by districts. “We will not have districts,” Davis was quoted as saying in The Oconee Enterprise in September 22, 2005.

Davis and the Board did not hold a public hearing to ask voters how they felt about districts or staggered terms. They simply asked local state Rep. Bob Smith and then Sen. Brian Kemp to introduce legislation setting up staggered terms.

The legislation that was drafted in 2006 didn’t include the post of Chairman, for some reason, and it was never passed. Rep. Smith and current Sen. Bill Cowsert started over again this year.

Neither Smith, nor Kemp, nor Cowsert sought input from citizens.

The bill introduced in the state House of Representatives by Smith put the issue on the ballot in November of this year and is to take effect January 1, 2008. Cowsert moved the election date to June 19 in the Senate. That bill passed on April 10 and was signed by Governor Sonny Perdue on April 19.

The Commission Posts held by Hale and Norris would be filled for two years in the 2008 elections, according to the legislation; the Chairman and the Commission Posts held by Horton and Luke would be filled for four years.

A special election for the staggered term vote in November probably would have had low turnout, since only those favoring or opposing staggered terms would make the effort to vote. That could have led to its defeat.

The June 19 Congressional election is drawing a lot of attention, particularly among Republicans. Ten candidates--six Republicans, one Libertarian and three Democrats--are seeking the seat that was held by deceased Republican Congressman Charlie Norwood.

When the Oconee County Board of Education put a similar staggered term vote on the ballot in November of 2006, it was approved by 90 percent of the voters. It was tucked in with 11 other amendments and referenda at the end of the busy ballot.

Both Cowsert and County Attorney Dan Haygood said the switch to the June 19 ballot was made to save money.

Both the Banner-Herald and the Enterprise last wrote about staggered terms when they reported that the governor had signed the bill. Both noted that the U.S. Justice Department still needed to review the legislation to make sure it did not violate the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

According to County Attorney Haygood, the County still has not heard from the Justice Department.

The County ran legal notices in the Enterprise on May 10 and 17 announcing the election. The sample ballot on the County web site includes the question on staggered terms.

Haygood said if the Department of Justice does not approve the legislation in time for the June 19 election–he said he expects to hear two or three days before that–the vote on staggered terms on June 19 will be “void.” The County then will hold the election in November, as originally planned.

People who come out to vote in the hotly contested Congressional race may well pull the lever for what seems to be an innocuous change in the voting for members of the Board of Commissioners.

But a vote in favor of staggered terms weakens the hands of citizens by making it impossible to bring about big changes all at once.

It is a right we should retain.

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