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Commissioners discuss adding county-wide chair position, more representation for residents
commissioners
Forsyth County Board of Commissioners from left, Todd Levent, Molly Cooper, Chairwoman Cindy Jones Mills, Laura Semanson and Alfred John.

Forsyth County has been growing and changing in population, development and soon, commissioners might call for a possible shift in county government.

At a work session on Tuesday, Nov. 9, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners discussed the possibility of creating a sole chairman position.

District 5 Commissioner Laura Semanson brought the idea to the board and said the role would likely be a county-wide elected role that would act alongside the district commissioners as a complement.

“My vision for this role is still a part-time role, but it would take on many of the administrative responsibilities [and] most of the things that are unique to the chairmanship and separate those out from the district responsibilities,” Semanson said.

Semanson said that, according to her vision, the role would likely handle external relationships between the county and the region or state, assist district commissioners with projects, run meetings and be a possible tiebreaker for votes.

“In the event … if there were to be a tie, we would not have to wait until a new board member was seated to resolve that issue,” Semanson said. “[The role] would function somewhat similar to what some of the cities around here do with their city councils and their mayors.”

“I think that this allows people to have a better focus on their individual roles, it de-politicizes the role … and it allows the people to have a voice,” she said. “It allows the people to determine who they want to be that individual who’s representing the county, who is keeping … the train moving and who’s going to have the ability to have the contemplation [and] the wisdom … to break those ties when necessary.”

Semanson also thought that the creation of the position might “alleviate a lot of the tension” between board members when it is time to elect a chairperson each year.

Currently, board members elect a district commissioner between themselves to serve as both a district commissioner and chairman each year. During the work session, commissioners acknowledged that the decisions can be “contentious.”

District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent said that he “probably [agreed]” with what Semanson was proposing, but he was concerned about the possibility of the chair role being able to “undermine any district or any district commissioner.”

Chairwoman Cindy Jones Mills echoed the concern, asking how the board might handle someone in the role that might favor one district over another or consider the district that they live in before the county as a whole.

Semanson said that she envisioned the position to be “a different role” from the current role of chair in that it could not make policies; the only administrative business the position would have would be the presiding over official meetings.

County Attorney Ken Jarrard said that some of the duties of the chairman right now include presiding over meetings, calling the meetings to order at the scheduled hours, determining that a quorum is present and serving as a representative at state and regional events. He said that the duties are currently “fairly granular” and “focused on the meeting itself.”

In 2016, Mills said that there was a straw poll sent out on the Republican ballot with a similar query.

According to Mills, the straw poll asked residents if they would be in favor of transitioning to having four district commissioners with a county-wide chairperson. She said that only 16% of registered voters responded, and Jarrard said he recalled the vote being split 60 percent to 40 percent with most voters in favor of the idea.

Semanson said her proposal was different from the one in 2016 because it was not her intention to redraw district lines. Instead, she is hoping to keep the same districts and add the extra position as “more representation” for the residents of the county.

“There’s a lot of people in this county that want to be able to vote county-wide,” Levent said.

District 2 Commissioner Alfred John said he thought “this topic deserved discussion” and possible consideration because of the change in the county’s population and demographics.

“We cannot stay the same way we have always been,” John said. “The county changes, the county evolves, and we have to explore it every once in a while.”

John said he was in favor of a position that was solely focused on “the interests of all the county and not just the individual districts.”

“Whether we like to admit or not, we all are a bit territorial,” John said. “We like to consider district-first sometimes, but we think about the county as a whole.”

However, John said that he would “never support” something that “intervenes in the professional side of the county,” and that he thought there was “some merit” in the position focusing only on the benefit of the county as a whole and working to provide more representation for the residents of Forsyth County.

District 1 Commissioner Molly Cooper was not opposed to the idea but expressed concerns about the details of the position including salary and duties. 

She said the item was worth discussing again but with “solid ingredients of what the recipe is.”

Semanson said that she was “looking forward” to hearing “substantive” objections to the idea at future meetings.

“I’m … looking forward to hearing some of the real objections — the reasons why this is a bad thing,” Semanson said. “Because I’ve heard objections to it, but I’ve not really heard any substantive reason why this isn’t something we should be considering.”

Commissioners decided to bring the item back for discussion at the next work session on Tuesday, Nov. 23 with direction to staff to provide additional details about the previous straw poll in 2016, possible budgeting statistics and more.