Commissioners plan final attempt at reducing commission seats

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By Jennifer Caldwell

With the county election just months away a debate that has waged on in commission meetings for nearly two years will likely be put to rest- at least for another term.

In 2007 a motion made by Johnny Bruce to reduce the number of commissioners representing each district from three to two received enough votes to pass. Since that time the issue has been batted back and forth in tennis match fashion. And while the number currently sits at 15, some commissioners are lobbying a last ditch effort to gain the eight votes necessary to make a 10 member commission stick for the August election.

As the April 1 qualifying date approaches for candidates wishing to run in the county election, a deadline of another sort has been requested of the county’s governing body.

According to Dean Sexton, registrar of elections, the group has been asked to make a final decision on the number of commissioner spots per district to be placed on the ballot by the beginning of March.

“There is not a set date defined by statute, but we have told them (commissioners) we would like to have a decision by March 1,” Sexton explained.

Although prospects for the county’s elected offices have been picking up and filing petitions since early January Sexton said changes in the number of commissioners to be elected will have no bearing on the qualifiers.

“It won’t really matter to those picking up petitions because it will not restrict the number of people allowed to run for the office,” Sexton said.

For Commissioner Johnny Joe Dower, a reduction in the number of commissioners just makes sense.

“We can’t get anything done,” Dower said arguing that a smaller commission would mean less debate.

In addition to increased efficiency, Dower said he believed that the estimated $70,000 in savings that could be achieved by eliminating five positions will potentially be greater depending on who is or is not elected.

“The money is also a big thing,” Dower said of his reason for placing the item on the upcoming commission meeting agenda. “Take me for example. With hospitalization, dental and life insurance I am costing the county around $20,000.”

As a final argument, Dower pointed out that Knox County’s commission recently voted to reduce its board from 19 to 11 members.  

Like Dower, Commissioner Adrion Baird is also a proponent of a smaller commission membership.

“Having three commissioners to represent 8,000 citizens is too many. In fact, only one commissioner per district would be sufficient,” Baird said.

Baird maintains the argument that suggests three commissions per district provides more equal representation of voters is flawed.

“Two commissioners per district would make it possible to conduct business in a less contentious manner and in less time,” Baird said.

While Baird agrees that the cost savings created by having fewer commissioners is another reason he supports the measure he said he would also advocate for applying some of the savings to increase commissioner pay.

“We simply must pay public servants for their time and commitment. I am in favor of raising the pay of commissioners in this county and also paying the chairman of the commission at least $2,000 more than a commissioner is paid,” Baird said emphasizing that his desire to serve the county is not related to how much he is paid.

Commissioners Rusty Orick, Stan Marlow and Ann Smith disagree with the push toward a smaller commission.

“I think we need to leave it the way it is,” Smith said on Monday night arguing that having three commissions provided more equal representation for each district.

For Orick leaving the commission at 15 is a matter of necessity.

“It is too much work for two commissioners to do,” Orick said of the responsibilities of answering constituent calls and researching issues that come before the board.

According to Orick, a smaller group will not eliminate or even reduce the bickering that takes place among the current commission.

Marlow said having three representatives per district gives commissioners more leverage if there is a particular goal that needs to be accomplished.

“It gives fellow commissioners in that district a better chance of getting things done,” Marlow explained.

The commission will be voting on the proposed action that will reduce the body to 10 members on Feb. 16 at 6 p.m.

How many is too many? Log on at www.lafollettepress.com and post your thoughts.