Proposal would take politics out of local elections

CONYERS -- Local Democrats and Republicans are giving a collective thumbs down to a proposed bill filed for next month's General Assembly session that proposes to make countywide elected offices nonpartisan.

Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, filed HB 682, that would allow counties to petition their local legislative delegation to make the office of county commissioner, along with other countywide elected offices, nonpartisan.

Currently, the only counties where state law allows the offices of the county governing authority to be nonpartisan are Georgia's seven consolidated governments.

The bill would affect offices of county commissioner, sheriff, district attorney, solicitor-general, clerk of superior court, tax commissioner, coroner, and surveyor to also be nonpartisan if approved by local legislation in the General Assembly.

Peake said the process mirrors what is already in place for school board members and probate court judges. Rockdale County is one of 107 Georgia counties to create either a nonpartisan county school board or have a nonpartisan probate judge.

"My local elected officials asked me to introduce this bill so they can more effectively work together and solve problems that matter to local taxpayers," Peake said in a statement. "Since Georgia has a long tradition of providing flexibility at the local level for self-government, I think this bill makes sense and I look forward to debating the merits of this legislation with my colleagues during the upcoming General Assembly."

The bill has garnered support from the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. ACCG Executive Director Ross King said in a press release that the bill allows local leaders decide for themselves whether they want a partisan or nonpartisan government.

However, political leaders in Rockdale and Newton counties are against the bill.

R.J. Hadley, first vice chairman of the Rockdale County Democratic Party said in an email response to questions though the bill concerns making local offices nonpartisan he believes it is strictly a partisan move.[*]

Don Williamson, chairman of the Republican Party of Rockdale County, said moving to an all nonpartisan slate of locally elected officials is the wrong move.

"When you have no candidates that claim to represent a party of any type, you have candidates that will pander to all groups," he said in an email reply to questions. Williamson said he had not read the bill.

In Newton County, both political parties came to the same conclusion. They say there is a widening divide between Republicans and Democrats and making local elections nonpartisan could be dangerous for voters.

Newton County Republican Party Chairwoman Delia Fleming said it would be especially confusing given that each county would have a choice of whether to hold nonpartisan elections.

"Nobody would be able to keep up with what's happening in the state," she said. "The state Democratic and Republican parties would have a hard time keeping up with who's doing what. Parties are more vigilant in asking ahead of time, talking to (candidates) to find out if they meet the standards of the party. This next election, anybody who runs wants the party to be behind them for financial support and getting out and knocking on doors. It's going to take a lot of support before you put your name on the dotted line. Locally and nationally, Republicans are all determined to get Obama out and to maintain what we have and reclaim seats."

Newton County Democratic Party Chairwoman Sara Todd said her party is also opposed to Peake's bill.

"We basically think it's a very bad idea. When a person declares themselves to be in one of two major political parties, they are basically saying they are adhering to certain ideals, and that's how people know where they stand on certain issues," she said.

Acknowledging that plenty of times elected officials stray from voting along party lines and fail to adhere to philosophies they campaigned on, Todd said if Peake's bill becomes law, "I think the situation will be amplified. You'll get this rogue element with a devil may care, I don't have to answer to anyone's attitude."

Both party leaders said they doubt the bill will gain the traction it needs to pass both chambers of the General Assembly.

Citizen Staff Reporter Crystal Tatum contributed to this story.

Correction, Jan. 5, 2012: This story was revised. The story should have reported that Rep. Peake had not changed political parties and was elected to the Georgia House of Representative in 2006 as a Republican. The Citizen regrets the error. Return to the revised paragraph here [*].