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Election switch appears more likely
District vote plan clears state Senate
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Forsyth County News

Thursday was a disappointing day for two Forsyth County commissioners as the state Senate approved legislation that will impact their bids for re-election should they choose to run again in 2010.

Commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse and Commissioner Jim Harrell have spoken out against the measure, introduced by state Rep. Mark Hamilton, a Republican from Cumming.

House Bills 373 and 378 revise the county’s current election process to require each of the five seats on the county commission and school board be decided by voters living in the respective districts of the candidates, instead of at-large.

Candidates for both panels have previously been elected countywide, though they must run in the district in which they live.

The bills, which each passed the House and Senate unanimously, await Gov. Sonny Perdue's signature.

“The entire delegation met with the governor prior to the bills being dropped, so we do not expect any issues,” Hamilton said.

The changes would go into effect well before for the July 2010 primary election, when Harrell and Laughinghouse are up for re-election.

Both men have said the ballot wording was confusing for voters and didn’t include the opinions of the majority of registered voters.

In fact, the Senate's vote came two days after Harrell tried unsuccessfully to get the commission to back a resolution to slow down the bills.

“We have no idea how 80 percent of the registered voters want to elect their commissioners and no one can deny that," Harrell said Friday. "We just don’t know. For me, however the people want to do this, it’s fine with me ... but we just don’t know the answer to that.”

The pending change was inspired by a nonbinding election ballot question during the July 15 primary, in which the majority of voters -- nearly 73 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of Democrats -- said they preferred district voting over the current at-large setup.

Of more than 87,000 registered voters during the 2008 primary election, 14,248, or about 16 percent, responded to the vote-by-district question.

Still, that was more voters than cast ballots for any commissioner or school board member.

Harrell and Laughinghouse stand to be the the first two commissioners affected by the change.

In a reference to Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt, Harrell contends the bills will “greatly favor the mayor’s candidate in 2010, in at least one of the districts.”

“That could easily mean that $50 million in the two 1-penny sales taxes could go to the city for their projects instead of to the county for their projects," he said. "As a county commissioner, obviously I feel obligated to work for the people of the county.”

Gravitt, who pushed the city's legal challenge against the most recent 1-cent sales tax, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Last spring, the county and city reached a settlement that kept the voter-approved sales tax extension, but in return secured additional money for the city.

School Board Chairwoman Ann Crow is also up for re-election in 2010.

While no system is perfect, Crow said Forsyth has “gotten so large, [voting by district] is a more fair way to vote.”

“Mark [Hamilton] did his research and the majority of the counties our size vote by district, not countywide.”

Of the 22 counties with a population of more than 100,000, only Forsyth and Houston vote at-large for their commissioners, Hamilton has said.

Of Georgia’s 159 counties, just 65 voted by district in 1986. As of 2007, 114 counties did so.

Harrell said because the bills will lead to “a fundamental change in how we elect commissioners, I would like to have seen much more debate on this issue.”