2015
03.30

Legislators are elected to the General Assembly to represent the voters in a district. To do that properly, they must communicate with their constituents and choose between conflicting wants or needs of various people.

Walker County’s three elected legislators have recently found themselves in a position of choosing between the voice of many or the demands of a mighty few – on the topic of voting for Sole Commissioner government.

Petition Sample Section

The county’s system of governance, headed by a single elected ruler, is a relic of the past. Sole commissioner leadership may have been appropriate for this area in the 1940’s, but today seems as modern and useful as outhouses and buggy whips. Arguments in support of having a sole leader don’t hold up in light of recent events in the county, and many feel Walker is being left behind because of its antiquated government.

Interest in the topic of sole commissioner surged after last fall’s 69% property tax increase, fueled by existing frustration with the county’s current sole commissioner, Bebe Heiskell. But taxes and the current unpopular commissioner are hardly the only reasons Walker County should be allowed to vote on this issue.

    “This is an outdated system that I can not believe is still in effect in this day and age. .. Why would you not want someone looking over the other person’s shoulder to ensure proper handling of the tax payer’s money?? I don’t care who that person is – I would want a co-commissioner.” -Edward Schub, Rising Fawn

Sole-commissioner government at any level invites abuse, because it places ultimate control and decision-making in the hands of one person, without the checks and balances necessary for representative government. (That’s why it’s only used in nine of the nation’s 3,144 counties, and banned in 49 other states) It also undercuts government transparency laws, keeps many in the county from having a voice, and gives incumbent commissioners an almost insurmountable advantage in elections.

Even if the sole commissioner is honest, trustworthy, open, and responsive – the perfect non-political politician – running a county the size of Walker, with its large budget and a population over 60,000, is more job than one person can or should be asked to take on – no matter who that person is.

John Deffenbaugh & Steve Tarvin

The county’s charter can be changed to bring in a board of commissioners but the only means of doing that is through legislation, a bill passed through the General Assembly by the county’s delegation. That delegation consists of three elected legislators: Senator Jeff Mullis, Representative Steve Tarvin, and Representative John Deffenbaugh.

None of the three, and none of their recent predecessors (Jay Neal, Martin Scott) have shown any interest in tackling the important sole commissioner issue, and when asked about it (on more than one occasion) have told constituents that there’s no public interest in changing the system – despite the obvious demand and need for it.

To change that mindset, The Underground and a handful of passionate people in Walker County launched a petition last fall asking the legislators to pass a resolution giving citizens a direct vote on keeping or dropping sole commissioner government.

Door to Door Petition Gathering / Edited

The petition was created online on September 11 of last year, and within a few days had been signed by over 1,000 people. Volunteers going door to door in LaFayette, Rossville, and elsewhere in the county collected hundreds more signatures on paper.

After two months the petition was closed, and the process of consolidating offline and online signatures began. After some delays an edited petition stripped of duplicate names, out-of-county signers, and illegible signatures was prepared – bringing the total to 2,045 valid names spread across a 75-page document.

That’s over 2,000 people being ignored, so far, by their elected advocates in Atlanta.

sole_comm_vote_petition

Copies of the letter above were delivered to the offices of Mullis, Tarvin, and Deffenbaugh shortly before noon on March 4th. Almost a month later, as this is written and the current legislative session nears an end, they have yet to respond to or even publicly acknowledge the petition.

It was admittedly delivered to them later than it should have been, and responsibility for that falls on LU. The petition was also presented to the public late, here for the first time, because of those who asked LU to wait. Wait for a better political climate, wait for the Republican Convention, wait until voters have taken time off work and made appointments to sit down with each legislator personally, wait for this, wait for that, wait, wait, wait.

But we’ve waited plenty long enough.

Walker County has waited over 75 years to move beyond sole commissioner government. 75 years is decades too long. There will never be a perfect time for this, and now time is running out, both for the county’s fragile financial situation and for the current legislative session, which ends Thursday.

Jeff Mullis & Bebe Heiskell

Before the completed petition was delivered to his desk, Senator Mullis dismissed it – twice.

In September he told a Chattanooga reporter the petition would need “an overwhelming amount of signatures to have any real clout” but didn’t elaborate on his definition of “overwhelming.” Again, in February, with 1,800 signatures known to be collected, Mullis told a second reporter he wasn’t interested in the petition, that there’s no “mandate” to vote on sole commissioner, and he wasn’t going to take thousands of his constituents seriously until some would meet with him in person.

Mullis also insisted multiple times that the petition could be fake, signed by made-up people who don’t live in his district, don’t vote, don’t pay taxes, who don’t exist or don’t matter.

While there’s no way to verify every single one of the 2,045 names on this petition are registered voters inside Walker County, a vast majority certainly are, and they speak for thousands of others who are as well. There’s no “legal standard” for the number of valid signatures needed to force this issue into a vote, but there is an ETHICAL standard for listening when a matter is this important to this many people.

WCM Sole Commissioner Poll Results

Another unofficial measure of public sentiment on the CatWalkChatt Web site shows overwhelming demand for a change, or at least a vote, on sole commissioner government. Over 350 voters and counting, with 90%+ in favor of having a commission.

Not even the 53-57 Republican Convention decision against asking legislators to call for a sole commissioner vote settles this issue; why should 110 people (some on the county payroll) attending a closed meeting be given the right to speak for the nearly 70,000 people who live in Walker County?

The ONLY real way to settle this controversial issue is by letting the citizens vote. (Even some who support keeping sole commissioner government have signed the petition asking for a vote, because they recognize the importance of giving the people a say in it.) Unfortunately there’s been no county-wide, binding vote on the sole commissioner system in at least a generation, at least partially due to the power sole-commissioners wield over legislators.

    “I think this should be put to a vote by the people and if the people choose a sole commissioner by vote then this matter can be put to rest.” -Joan Gregory, LaFayette

Our elected legislators can choose to directly modify the county charter on their own via legislation, or pass a resolution allowing the people of Walker County to choose their system of government in the voting booth. The second option is what this petition asks Mullis, Tarvin, and Deffenbaugh to do.

They don’t have to take a controversial position themselves, only let US decide for OURSELVES what form of leadership Walker County should have going forward.

What kind of elected leader refuses to let his constituents’ wishes be known and followed? Their refusal is almost as much of an offense against democracy as the sole commissioner system itself has turned out to be.

    “As Americans we should have a choice and a chance. We are behind the times in Walker County and an embarrassment to the nation.” -Lindsey Stephenson, Chickamauga

The 2015 legislative session ends on Thursday; legislators won’t meet again until next January. So time is, again, of the essence to get anything done this year. Petition signers and any other Walker County voter who wishes to see this on a ballot in the next year should take a few minutes today or tomorrow and contact Rep. Deffenbaugh, Rep. Tarvin, and Sen. Mullis about this issue, to remind them that you DO exist, you DO vote, and you DO count.

And you’ll remember whose voice they listened to (or ignored) when all three men are up for reelection next spring.

Senator Mullis’ Atlanta number is 404-656-0057. the local is 706-375-1776. E-mail is virtually useless, but if that’s all you can do Mullis’ e-mail is jeff.mullis@senate.ga.gov .

Likewise, Steve Tarvin’s Atlanta office number is 404-656-0109, his home number is 423-605-7328, and his e-mail (which you absolutely should not use if you’re able to call) is steve.tarvin@house.ga.gov. Deffenbaugh’s office number is 404-656-0202 and his e-mail is john.deffenbaugh@house.ga.gov.

    “Our county government is operating without any oversight and without any real accountability to the citizens. Failure to allow the citizens a vote on the commissioner issue denies the citizens an opportunity to exercise their right to have a true voice in the leadership of our government. Don’t deny us that right. Allow our voices to be heard.” -Melissa Hegwood, LaFayette

A vote on sole commissioner government CAN be held in Walker County IF enough people continue to ask for it, pushing elected officials and party leaders of the issue until they concede. It’s only a matter of time and effort – enough of both, and we can obtain what at least 2,045 petition signers have asked for.

Then comes the hard part: actually conducting a vote.

PETITION COMMENTS:

Online signers of the petition had the option of leaving a comment along with their name, and many chose to take advantage of that feature. Eleven pages of comments about the issue of sole commissioner from Walker County residents were included in a separate printed document mailed along with the paper petition.

sole_comm_vote_comments

These are real people, our friends, neighbors, and relatives saying in their own words what we all feel. They live, breathe, work, spend, and pay taxes in this area, and they’re demanding a vote on the form of government that they support. Their voices can be ignored, but you can hardly deny that these people exist.

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7 comments so far

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  1. Excellent work

  2. Heck Yeah! Quoted! :) Contacted all three parties. Look at me being all real and stuff.

  3. We don’t wan’t the legislators to listen to LU any more than we want them to listen to the Walker County Messenger or some other entity, we want them to listen to YOU. YOU vote, YOU pay taxes, and their job is to take your concerns into consideration. But YOU have to take action and contact them, call, go visit them, and tell them your position. This is meant to motivate you to do that, not to pressure them into doing it.

    And again, all they’re being asked to do is let us vote – not take a position themselves on the issue.

    — LU

  4. Bebe Heiskell needs to have more accountability. She is wasting a lot of money by buying up property we do not need – more for her benefit than Walker County.
    People in Walker County need to wake up!
    All those legislators that voted to keep the sole commissioner and not let “We the People” vote also need to be replaced!

  5. I just called all three, and made it clear this would decide if they get my vote on polling day. X marks the spot that gives us our voice, but how do we vote when there isn’t a choice….

  6. If dishonesty exsist in our county government ,than a five man board would increase the chances of such actions being revealed x 3.

  7. They’re being REVEALED now, to a degree, but nothing is done because a sole commissioner isn’t accountable to anyone. The state supposedly can hold a commissioner in check but doesn’t because everybody’s in the same party and have been doing favors for one another (political and otherwise) for years.

    Do you really think Nathan Deal or Jeff Mullis hold Bebe accountable? I hope not. (That’s not what you said, just saying – it’s a broken system and meant to be that way.)

    You need to mention your support for changing to a board on your Web site.

    — LU