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Board spars over districts
Two commissioners fret over change to elections
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Forsyth County News
One Forsyth County commissioner urged his colleagues Tuesday to join him in opposing state legislation that could change the way they are elected.

Commissioner Jim Harrell presented the board with a resolution to slow down two bills that are awaiting Senate approval after each passed the state House unanimously Feb. 18.

If approved, the legislation would revise the county’s current election process to require each of the five seats on the commission and school board to be decided by voters living in the respective districts of the candidates, rather than by the county at-large.

The proposed legislation was inspired by a nonbinding election ballot question during the July 15 primary, in which the majority of voters — 72 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of Democrats — said they preferred district voting over the current at-large setup.

Harrell did not get the full support of the board during Tuesday’s work session.

Commissioner Patrick Bell called it “another jab at our state delegation, which is absolutely ridiculous.”

Bell said he would not sign the document and later made a motion to postpone any action to ratify it.

The proposal was delayed by a 3-2 vote, with Harrell and Commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse opposed.

Harrell and Laughinghouse are both up for re-election in 2010, making them the first two commissioners who would be affected by the change.

Each has expressed discontent for the bills, which were introduced by Rep. Mark Hamilton.

“Changing the way commissioners are elected should not be taken lightly,” Harrell said Tuesday. “Under the proposed change, voters will only get to vote for one commissioner, not five, even though all five commissioners vote on all the issues.”

Harrell said because voter turnout was low for the primary — about 17 percent of registered voters — the resolution would “ask the state delegation to give citizens an ample opportunity to discuss and debate this issue before a change is made.”

Bell said, however, the citizens have spoken.

“Commissioner Harrell, we can’t drag people out of their house and make them vote,” he said. “Those that cared came and voted. How can we sit here and say we know better than our voters?”

Harrell responded: “I’m not saying we know better. I’m saying any time you want to fundamentally change the way people vote on the people who make decisions in their lives, you should make damn sure plenty of discussion and debate has been held.”

Bell said opposing the bill would be pointless and would damage the county’s reputation.

“Let’s fire another arrow down toward Atlanta and see how far that gets us,” Bell said. “I can assure you, [the bills are] going forward.

“Not being able to work with our delegation ... it causes issues of management in this county, because we don’t have a team. We’ve got a board of commissioners that isolates themselves from every other governing body that has anything to do with this county.”

Laughinghouse said state delegation “needs to get along a little better with us.”

Commissioner Brian Tam took issue with one sentence in particular in the resolution that stated “the local delegation’s efforts at disenfranchising the voters in Districts 2, 4 and 5 is unfortunate and, at a minimum, premature given the lack of public involvement and input.”

Tam said he was puzzled by this.

“Who says they’re disenfranchised? You make an accusation ... that’s inappropriate.”

Harrell said voters in those districts “don’t get a vote on a commissioner next time.” The terms of commissioners in Districts 2, 4 and 5 won’t expire until 2012.

Tam said residents made their decision by voting.

“It was voted on, and you just don’t like the result,” he told Harrell.

Harrell said the ballot question “was not descriptive.”

“You are afraid of discussion,” Harrell said. “Trust me, the people of this county did not know what that [ballot question] meant.”

The language of the July 15 ballot question was as follows:

“Should the county charter be revised to provide that county commissioners and school board members be elected by the voters in the respective districts?”

Nonbinding ballot questions can serve as a test run for local support on issues that voters could decide — for real — in future elections. They can also help state legislators gauge public support for a measure.

Local parties have the right to pose such questions on their respective ballots, though the move was the first time in at least 15 years in Forsyth County.

E-mail Frank Reddy at