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What is the commission chairman's role?

Candidates differ on how much power leader of Hall board should wield

POSTED: July 8, 2012 12:22 a.m.

When campaigning against an incumbent, challengers seek to highlight their differences in the hopes of convincing voters they can do a better job.

In the campaign for chairman of the Hall County Board of Commissioners, the chairman’s precise role on the board and in the community is drawing some of the biggest differences between the three candidates.

Incumbent Chairman Tom Oliver, former District 3 Commissioner Steve Gailey and former Hall County Sheriff Dick Mecum all are vying for the seat.

Unlike other commissioners on the board who are elected by the voters of their districts, the chairman is elected by the county at-large.

His responsibility is to run commission meetings and work sessions.

While the candidates agree that it’s the chairman’s job to unite the board and look out for the interests of the county, each offers a different perspective on how to get that done.


Based on his experience as a former commissioner and Clermont City Council member, Gailey said he has a clear picture of how a chairman should behave.

He said the biggest change he would make if elected would be how the chairman acts in meetings.

Currently, the chairman participates in the meetings by making motions and participating in every vote, both allowed by the county’s ordinance.

With those duties, and the job of running the meetings, Gailey said that currently the chairman acts as a “super commissioner” with too much power.

“I’m not running for chairman for it to be a ‘me, me, me’ thing,” he said. “It’s going to be a ‘we’ thing.”

Instead, Gailey proposes that a chairman should not vote unless it’s to break a tie and should not make or second motions.

Many city councils in Hall County, including Gainesville, operate on a similar model.

Gailey said that tweak would create “a more stabile commission.”

“It forces everyone to work together,” he said.

The philosophy comes straight from Gailey’s experience as a district commissioner.

Too many times, he said, the chairman — including Oliver and his predecessor — would intervene on issues involving his North Hall district without coordinating with him.

As Gailey puts it, when the chairman has limited powers at a meeting, it forces him to talk to other commissioners ahead of time.

“I’m not going to be the type of chairman to butt in on somebody’s business,” Gailey said.


For Mecum, the role of the chairman comes back to the role of the board itself.

“Their primary function is to oversee the county,” he said, particularly the county’s finances. “The whole purpose of that is to protect the county and the employee.”

Mecum has been critical of the commission’s ability to do that in recent years.

The former sheriff said commissioners should have seen the economic crisis coming and should have cut expenses earlier.

As for the chairman, Mecum said there’s nothing too special about the position other than conducting the meetings and looking out for the interests of the whole county.

“He is the guy with the gavel, but he is also a representative of the people,” Mecum said.

Though not as adamant as Gailey, Mecum also questions whether the chairman should regularly vote and make motions.

“The commission chair shouldn’t have any more of a say on something than anyone else,” he said. “Too much is done behind the scenes and everyone goes to the chairman. Right now, Hall County has lost their representation on the commission.”

If elected, Mecum said his goal would be to bring more transparency to meetings.

As it is, public input during commission meetings are limited. Meanwhile, work sessions — where residents have free reign to speak their mind — are held during the afternoon when most people are at work.

Mecum said work sessions should be held in the evenings, when most residents can attend if they wish.

Commissioner Ashley Bell has made similar suggestion in recent weeks.

 

Oliver has served as chairman for eight years and is seeking a third term.

“The most significant thing (the chairman does) is to work with the other commissioners to create a consensus, in order to bring everyone back together in a professional way,” Oliver said.

Though it’s sometimes been a bumpy road, the chairman said he’s done the job he was elected to perform.
Oliver said disagreement on the board isn’t always a bad thing.

“But we’ve also got to recognize that this is the county we are,” he said. “The county is bigger than any one person.”

That aim was put to the test last year when new members of the board, Craig Lutz and Scott Gibbs, joined Bell to challenge Oliver on issues related to top-tiered county staff and other matters.

At the beginning of that year, verbal sparring highlighted the commissioners’ public meetings as new members challenged the old guard.

Even Oliver admits the meetings were difficult. “We were on opposite ends of the spectrum at one time,” he said.

But, as Oliver argues, that dynamic evolved.

“We were able to get through it, air our differences and now we’ve developed a real strong commission,” Oliver said.

As for the chairman’s role in making motions and voting in meetings, Oliver said he follows the county’s ordinance, which states the chairman can participate “in all deliberations, make, second and vote on all motions” and “have the same and equal rights” to other commissioners.

The way Oliver sees it, the chairman represents all of the county, so he should have the ability to act on behalf of the county.

If there were to be a change to the chairman’s role, Oliver said that should go to voters.

“I would think that if this is the will of the people, put it on the ballot and let them decide,” he said.


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