On Tuesday’s primary ballot voters in both the Republican and Democrat parties will be asked their opinion on whether the county should continue to elect commissioners and school board members countywide, or whether they should be elected by specific political districts.
The questions are nothing more than an opinion poll. They carry no weight in terms of forcing any change, but rather serve as a barometer of the public’s position on the issue.
We hope voters will say “yes,” that the county does need to change its method of electing local officials — not for the purpose of mandating any change to a specific form of government, but rather to provide an impetus to legislators and local leaders to look at the issue and see if there are forms of government that would serve the county better.
Forsyth is not now the county it was just a couple of decades ago. A governmental model that made sense in the past may not be the best for a county that has seen its population climb to well over 130,000 people.
There is no perfect model of county government, and those who are elected to positions of leadership do more to determine what works well and what doesn’t than does any specific governmental model.
That said, there are weaknesses in the current system that need to be addressed, especially in light of the county’s rapid growth.
Currently county commissioners and school board members must live in specific districts in order to run, but are elected by voters countywide.
One of the problems with such a system is that it gives those parts of the county that are most heavily populated exceptional influence in determining the outcome of elections.
Forsyth is most heavily populated in its southern extremes. The fate of a candidate serving the county’s northern district can be decided by voters concentrated in the south.
There is also the question of how many constituents an elected official can effectively serve.
Clearly all those who serve on the county commission and school board make decisions that affect the entire county, but can they individually be responsive to 170,000 residents or 200,000 residents?
Members of the state’s House of Representatives only serve about 45,000 constituents, while we ask county commissioners to serve multiples of that amount.
The cost of mounting a countywide campaign, and the ability of voters to make intelligent decisions on candidates about whom they may know little, is also worthy of discussions as Forsyth continues to grow.
There are few counties in Georgia that elect commissioners solely on a countywide “at large” basis, and most of those that do are considerably smaller than Forsyth.
Many of the state’s larger counties combine district representation and at-large representation, usually in conjunction with a full-time commission chairman.
Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s straw poll, the issue deserves public debate and discussion. There are resources available to provide and evaluate data for local decision makers.
It’s time to look at what the county needs in the years to come, not what served it well in years past. A yes vote on Tuesday’s ballot would provide impetus for state and local officials to undertake a study of the county’s governing model.
Let’s get the ball rolling toward open discussions of ways to make county government better.