Now there’s a passel of proposed measures kicking around in the state Senate seeking to allow communities, at their option and not by decree from on high, to opt for making the offices of sheriff, district attorney, coroner, tax commissioner, clerk of courts and county commissioner nonpartisan. As long as this would be a choice the hometown electorate can make at the polls … sure, why not?
Locally, of course, the Rome City Commission and Board of Education positions are already nonpartisan, as are Superior Court judgeships, probate court and chief magistrate, whereas nothing else involving the county is. Thus the electorate knows all five county commissioners are Republicans, the sheriff and district attorney Democrats while city commissioners are neutered, or something like that, although guessing what “leanings” they might have isn’t too hard.
What local citizens/taxpayers should want in the very offices having the most contact with them are the best people — not the ones with the heftiest political ties and coffers plus allegiances to outside interests of any variety. Greater Rome has generally done pretty well in this regard in the past 20 years or so, with this newspaper long ago having suggested the same nonpartisan path as is now proposed.
Indeed, it has even suggested that those with party affiliations elected locally, should they ever start sounding off like many of their supposed compatriots in Congress or the General Assembly, be immediately recalled.
PERHAPS in the vaguest philosophical sense — let’s say Republicans put economic issues first and Democrats emphasize people issues even though that is a glittering generality — there’s some indication of a possible future approach to local questions but that’s about it. As Irwin Bagwell, the County Commission chairman, put it: “I’ve always felt partisan politics let voters know where your values are.” So long as “what’s best for the people of Floyd County” is the trump card that wins the pot over political allegiance, fine.
Frankly, when it comes to local governance, the days long forgotten when Rome/Floyd had political parties aligned along farm/labor versus business/merchant interests and even city against county (before it was realized all were in the same boat) actually made more sense than the current lineup with links to parties where differences are mostly about things like taxation from afar, immigration or whatever. After all, the hometown electorate gets a say in who represents us on those questions where they actually are decided. County commissioners, sheriffs and so forth are chosen to handle different matters more of the nuts-and-bolts variety.
As Sheriff Tim Burkhalter pointed out, “I’m not 100 percent loyal to either party. I’m loyal to the position.” That’s pretty much what District Attorney Leigh Patterson was saying in stressing “We enforce the law — we don’t make it.”
Nonetheless, this proposal in our contemporary era contains a major failing. Nonpartisan is one thing; perpetual re-election without opposition is quite another. There’s already a notable drift toward this even with the two-party system, particularly on local positions both partisan and nonpartisan alike.
STATE SEN. Chuck Hufstetler of Rome, a former Floyd County commissioner, opposes this measure (and he’s actually got a vote on it) insisting that political parties foster competition even while lamenting, “It would be nice if we had more active political parties here.” Sure would — although more active citizens would more than suffice.
Time and again in recent years local offices/officials are simply not even being opposed, other than perhaps when there is an “open seat” (no incumbent). There is a marked trend toward elected slots being perpetually filled by the same person. This is the result of many factors: a citizenry clearly more placid than in some past times; the high cost in time and sometimes money of mounting a challenge; a lack of desire to be subjected to the increasingly intense media/public scrutiny (and nasty commentary) that accompanies sticking one’s head up in order to be heard.
Recently Greater Rome incumbents have often been unopposed, and not always necessarily because they have done the best job anybody can ever remember. Additionally, even when a “party” opponent has been penciled in it has too often become as a placeholder only, sometimes not campaigning or showing up at public forums or even, as in one recent case, bothering to submit a biography for free publication. And, even with the current uproar regarding the Floyd County school system reductions, when next board members are up for election (in 2014, by the way) will the upset last long enough to result in opposition?
NONPARTISAN local elections are indeed the way to go, particularly if Greater Romans first get to make that decision for themselves and thus be given the assurance that partisan party claptrap can simply never appear except regarding those few positions where it might belong.
However, the legislation proposed lacks, as does the current system, the same important fail-safe to assure that the public is not governed by an uninterrupted stream of never-opposed incumbents who, once in office, get to hold it for life. Even term limits are insufficient to this task as they risk forcing out of office the best public servant ever to appear.
As Hufstetler correctly fears, nonpartisan elections could give the incumbent a “bigger edge” and leads to those in power staying in power. The party system does the same thing.
Therefore any shift in ballot choices should include an opening on the ballot to express unhappiness with the current job holder even if no other name/choice is offered. Something like “anybody else” as an option.
If “anybody else” should get a majority of the votes — probably a longshot requiring a clear and strong electorate unhappiness — then the post should be filled by an appointee chosen and supervised by a panel of all other nonpartisan elected officials in the political jurisdiction until the next regular polling date, and a ballot on which the deposed incumbent may not appear. There is at least one election every year and this would avoid the cost of a special ballot. Realistically, such an outcome would very rarely occur.
THERE’S NO cause to replace one possible lack of suitable choices, which is too often the current situation, with another. However, if nonpartisan is indeed a smarter way to go in filling purely local governing positions then the process should be smarter than the current one as well.