When it comes to cities and counties, there is no perfect system of government, largely because there are no perfect elected officials.
There are a variety of ways to structure the roles and responsibilities of commissioners, commission chairmen, county managers, city councils and mayors. It is usually the people who serve in office, rather than the structure of the government, that determines what works well and what doesn’t.
That said, some organizational structures make more sense than others. The current operational structure of the Hall County Board of Commission is one that makes sense, works well, and doesn’t need to be changed.
How the county commission is structured has become fodder for debate in the current campaign to elect a county commission chairman. Steve Gailey, a former district commissioner now running for chairman, has proposed changing the chairman’s authority and responsibilities in order to weaken the position.
We think that is a bad idea, and frankly are a bit surprised that a candidate seeking the office would have as a top priority reducing the level of responsibility that goes along with the job. To suggest that he should be elected so that he can do less than others who have filled the position before him isn’t much of a political platform.
Under the current organizational structure, the commission chairman is the only member of the county’s governing body who is elected countywide. District commissioners are elected to represent voters in defined geographic areas, and only the voters within those areas vote for their district commissioner.
Serving their districts and their constituents is a priority for the district commissioners. The chairman, however, represents voters from across the county, and as such, has to take a “big picture” view when making decisions. The chairman is the only member of the board whose constituents cross district boundaries, and as a result that chairman can — and must — take a much broader look at specific issues than those commissioners elected by district.
Which isn’t to say district commissioners never consider the county as a whole. Certainly they do on many, if not most, issues. But they have obligations to serving a specific portion of the county and the people who live there that’s hard to ignore, especially if they hope to serve more than a single term in office.
Under the current structure, the chairman, like district commissioners, has the authority to make motions and vote on issues related to county government. Gailey has suggested doing away with those powers, saying that the chairman should not vote except in the case of a tie, and should not have the power to make or second any motions.
In effect, Gailey would reduce the authority of the only member of the commission elected countywide so that it is less than that of district commissioners, which simply is illogical.
This isn’t the first time such an idea has surfaced, and it makes no more sense now than it did in January of 2011, when an effort to reduce the chairman’s powers championed by current commissioner Craig Lutz failed by a 4-1 margin.
Gailey and Lutz clearly are reading from the same playbook, but it is one focused more on personal politics than good governance.
There is little new in the world of politics, and this particular ploy surfaces with some regularity in counties all across the state, usually when political challengers can’t mount a serious campaign on more meaty issues and decide the system of governance need to be changed. Sometimes they propose weakening a certain position, sometimes giving it more power. “Change” is the mantra, and we only need to look to Washington to see how well that has worked for us in recent election history.
Gailey says his proposal, which those who study such sometimes refer to as a “weak chairman” form of government, would make the county commission more like most city councils. However there are significant differences in a county commission, which governs a broad geographic area with many diverse issues and constituencies, and much smaller city governments, which serve people in a much more concentrated area where the diversity of issues is likely to be on a smaller scale, and the sway of district voting less important.
Gailey suggests that weakening the commission chairman will lead to more stability on the commission and more of a team approach to problem solving. Just the opposite would be the case. Turn the chairman into nothing more than a figurehead who serves as a glorified parliamentarian and you guarantee individual district commissioners will try to use their personal bases of power to give a geographic-centric tilt to decision making, ignoring the only member of the board elected by the entire county. The end result would be polarizing turf wars, not better government.
There’s nothing wrong with the current operational structure for the county government, and a lot about it that is right. Having the chairman responsible to the entire county puts a lot of responsibility on the position, and there has to be some authority to support that responsibility or the people of the county will not be well served. What is the value of having a chairman elected by everyone in the county, if he doesn’t have the authority to vote or make motions on behalf of those he serves?
Gailey’s misguided proposal is a bit of desperate political grandstanding that needs to be ignored.