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Norman Baggs: Voters put Pettitt in office, and only they can remove him
Norman Baggs

The Hall County School system has been catching some flak that it doesn’t deserve.

Mark Pettitt is the newest member of the county’s school board. He was sworn in this week to the position to which he was elected by the county’s voters. The swearing-in took place despite a pending charge of DUI against Pettitt, which has yet to run its course through the courts. Whether there will be a conviction on the charge remains to be seen; at this point he is not guilty.

The fact that Pettitt took his seat on the school board on Monday was enough to spark the ire of many, particularly on social media, but much of their criticism was misdirected and shows a lack of understanding of basic civics.

The comments went something like this: “Ashamed of the school system.” … “They should have fired him.” … “Only in Hall County.” … “They shouldn’t let him be sworn in.” “They shouldn’t swear him in.” 

You get the gist.

But here’s the rub. Regardless of the outcome of the charge against him, Pettitt is an elected official, chosen by the people to do the job of helping to run the county school system. He is not an employee of the system. He can’t be fired by the system, nor by someone in the county elections office, nor by somebody in county government.

He answers to the voters. And to the courts. No one else. 

Once someone is elected to public office, they can’t just summarily be refused that office because people don’t think they should serve. To do so would totally bypass the election process and make a mockery of our form of government.

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Mark Pettitt, standing with mother Jennifer, is sworn into the Hall County Board of Education Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, at the Hall County School District. Mark Pettitt, 26, replaces retiring board member Brian Sloan as the board’s South Hall representative - photo by Scott Rogers

Do you really want someone to have the power to decide if a legally elected public official should take office or not? Do you want someone picking and choosing what offense justifies refusing to seat a public official?

The potential for abuse in such a situation is staggering: “Yes, you were elected to the county commission, but you had two ‘super speeder’ tickets last year, so we’re not going to let you take office.”

Would you want those who are legally voted into public office to be subject to the threat of removal whenever critics think they aren’t qualified to serve? Is there a quicker way to destroy the concept of a democratic republic than to ignore the will of the people at the voting booth?

From congressmen to judges, there have been a number of public officials nationwide who have been guilty of DUI. For some the charge ended their careers; others have remained in office, been productive and been re-elected despite the charge.

There is recourse for removing a public official in Georgia. It’s a long, difficult process known as recall, and it has to start and end with the voters. But even recall is not an option the first six months an official is in office, and there are very specific criteria that must be met for a recall effort to move forward to completion. Having a DUI charge before taking office is not on the list.

Recall of public officials is often threatened, but almost never happens.

Who is supposed to be authorized to fire an elected official? To whom would you give that authority?

If elected officials are indicted for a felony, they can be suspended from office by the governor and ultimately replaced if convicted. But a DUI is not a felony. 

The elected county school board hires the school superintendent, so the superintendent certainly doesn’t have authority to fire a school board member, nor should he by any stretch of the imagination have that power.

By the same token, the employees of the county government can’t fire a county commissioner, nor can city employees fire a city council member.

The authority for those decisions rest with the voters. They can initiate a recall if there is sufficient legal cause to do so, or they can vote against an incumbent seeking re-election, but elected public officials have a right to the office for which they are approved by the voters.

Pettitt will serve his term on the school board unless he voluntarily resigns, or faces some more serious future issue that would justify his removal. 

All the school system can do is follow the law, and hope that the newest member proves to be a positive addition to the elected board that runs it. It can’t bypass the will of the electorate.

Norman Baggs is general manager of The Times. Email.