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Forum to air views on at-large chairman post

POSTED: November 22, 2011 1:38 p.m.

Effingham County residents will be able to offer their opinions on the county commission’s chairman at-large position at an upcoming forum.

State Sen. Jack Hill and state Reps. Jon Burns and Ann Purcell will conduct the public forum, which will be held Nov. 29 at 6 p.m. at the Effingham Career Academy.

“If it goes to the voters and the voters vote to not have a chairman at large, I’m OK with that,” said county Commissioner Steve Mason. “But at the least, I think it needs to be clarified.”

Added Commissioner Phil Kieffer: “I want to hear a clear voice from the general population of what they would like to see happen.”

Commissioners voted 5-1 — with Chairman Dusty Zeigler as the lone opposition vote — in July to forward legislation to the General Assembly’s August special session that would ask voters in the presidential preference primary if they wanted to continue with a six-person board and a chairman elected at-large or revert to the five-person board. Before the introduction of the at-large position in 2009, after a countywide vote in 2006, commissioners selected one of their own to serve as chairman.

A group of commissioners met with state legislators before the August special session to discuss the at-large chairperson seat. But the matter never came before the rest of the General Assembly for approval.

“We felt we needed public input, and we had not had the time to hold public hearings before the special session,” Purcell said. “We had some individual groups that asked us to come and hear. But as the legislative delegation, we felt we needed to hear from them as to what they would like to see done. We had not had the time to meet with the public to get that input from them.”

Kieffer said no one he has spoken with has been in favor of the at-large position but some have been indifferent. Kieffer has his own opinion on the matter but said his way of thinking is “irrelevant.”

“It’s ultimately up to the people,” he said. “It’s my job to explain to them how the position affects the operation of government.”

Mason said he would like to see some clarification on the position. He would like to see the chairman’s ability to set the agenda for commissioners’ meeting modified, and Kieffer also offered his concerns about how agendas are set currently under the at-large chairman’s discretion.

“There’s a couple of things I’ve been outspoken about,” Mason said. “One is the setting of the agenda. I don’t think that means pick and choose what goes on the agenda. I think that means to prioritize, order it and set it for time. I think if a commissioner wants something on the agenda, it needs to be on the agenda.”

Kieffer also said that the board conducting the simplest of its tasks can require a super majority to do those things, from approving basic contracts to approving the minutes of the previous meeting.

More than 79 percent of the votes cast in the 2006 decision on the at-large position were in favor of the at-large chairman post. The legislation that created the at-large post allows for the chairman to set the agenda and act as the board’s spokesman. It also gave the at-large chairman the power to vote in all matters before the commissioners.

With five districts, that means there are six commissioners with the ability to vote, if all are present and do not recuse themselves from an issue. That means there is the possibility of a tie vote, though there have been few since the at-large position was created.

But the specter of a deadlock concerns Mason.

“I think that it needs to be modified so that it is a vote only in need to break a tie or to vote in the necessity of a quorum,” he said, “or if one is absent and one recuses.”

Mason also issued the worry that a district may have two votes on an issue.

“The most concern people are talking about is you have two votes from a district for something,” he said. “For example, if there’s a park being discussed, then you’ll have two commissioners from one area who would want the park in that area. But what if it’s a landfill or something nobody wants? Then we’ll have two votes against it.”

Each county commissioner will have three minutes to speak at the start of the forum and there will be a sign-in sheet for members of the public to speak on the matter. Each speaker will be limited to three minutes.

“It’s for me to have an opportunity to listen to the folks,” said Purcell, who said she hasn’t had a lot of feedback on the issue, “if they want a change with regards to having a chairman at-large position. We’re waiting to hear from the public before we moved forward.”

Mason also said that the effort to do away with the position isn’t a reflection on Zeigler.

“I think Dusty and I are a lot more aligned than we are different,” he said. “But I do think that we do not need an even number of votes on the board. There’s only one other county that has the exact situation we have in the situation. In that county, the chairman sees it as an issue and he chooses not to cast his vote.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with it. If the voters vote to do away with the chairman position, I’m OK with that. I don’t know that it’s benefited us a lot. But a lot of people are confusing person and position.”

Added Kieffer: “I’m not anti-Dusty. It’s not about the person.”

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