Many of Georgia’s 159 counties are governed by boards of commissioners, but in seven of those counties you’ll find something rare – and unique to Georgia.
Those seven counties — Bartow, Bleckley, Chattooga, Murray, Pulaski, Towns and Union — have only one commissioner. Most counties have five or more.
Some people call a county with a sole commissioner an outdated concept — and even counterproductive.
Actions allegedly taken by one of Georgia’s sole commissioners, for instance, so ruffled certain Union County residents that they want him to serve alongside a board of colleagues, if only to hold him accountable.
Five years ago, the residents of Walker County voted overwhelmingly to shift from a sole commissioner form of government to a board of commissioners.
But four of Georgia’s seven sole county commissioners interviewed this month called their system of government more efficient. Most of those counties are rural and sparsely populated.
But change is likely coming to some of these counties, and it could create tensions between the people who have lived there their entire lives and newcomers who fled city life.
“The pandemic caused a lot of that,” said Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw, whose county, per the most recent U.S. Census, has nearly 13,000 residents.
“We have a mountainous area. People came here to get away from the city and to get fresh air. And now they can work remotely from here.”
Bartow County Commissioner Steve Taylor, whose county has 110,843 residents, said newcomers “aren’t used to our form of government.”
Union County Commissioner Lamar Paris, who has served for more than 20 years, said he blames “a little group of folks coming in [to his county] and being agitators.” He said these people have tried, unsuccessfully, for two years to petition enough signatures for an election to do away with the sole commissioner chair and convert the county government to a commission board.
Speaking of that petition, Union resident Millard Blanchard, said too many local voters are afraid to sign it.
“Our commissioner is acting on his own volition, like a dictator. The local folks refer to the people running the county as a mafia,” Blanchard said.
“This man is very powerful. He is the sole commissioner. He counsels himself, and he makes the budget.”
Blanchard has filed at least two superior court lawsuits against Paris. In one, Blanchard alleged Paris had a county road constructed without a bidding process. In another, Blanchard said the sole county commissioner spent taxpayer money on private property.
Paris said Blanchard’s lawsuits were frivolous and that’s why a judge tossed them out. He also said his opponents dislike the growth transpiring throughout the county and, by extension, dislike him.
“I am not a dictator. If I was a dictator then I would be in jail. They have been through the governor, the district attorneys, and the secretary of state trying to damn me because they are so vile,” Paris said.
“He [Blanchard] and his supporters spout and scream this stuff and call me a thief and say I waste money. We have a full-time person in this county who oversees the operation of bids, as well as a consultant who works on it. You will not find anything in this county that is done illegally.”
Blanchard, though, says Paris oversaw one county commission meeting and got carried away with his power. At this meeting, Paris called a female constituent a profanity. Although the meeting occurred nine years ago, video of the incident is still available for the public to view on YouTube.
When asked to comment, Paris said he “correctly described the woman.”
“That is the only time I know in the last nine years that they have me [on video] saying that word,” Paris said.
“It was at a time when there was a conflict going on. She is what I called her, but I did not have the right to call her that.”
GEORGIA’S HISTORY OF SOLE COMMISSIONS
This sole commissioner form of government dates to the 19th century. The Georgia constitution originally created four elected county officers: the sheriff, the tax commissioner, the clerk of the superior court and the judge of the probate court.
In 1868 the state created the position of county ordinary to administer a county’s general operations.
The 1868 constitution also authorized members of the Georgia General Assembly to create county commissioners. Upon ratification, every Georgia county was governed by a county ordinary. But nine years later more than half of Georgia’s counties were governed by a board of commissioners rather than ordinaries. Over the years the sole commissioner form of government was mostly phased out.
THE MOST EFFICIENT?
In counties where a sole commissioner form of government still exists, proponents, like Taylor, call it “the most efficient.”
“If you need to get an answer from a commissioner then you can do so quickly. The sole commissioners are full-time county employees who have an open-door policy and are at work every day,” Taylor said.
“If you have a board of commissioners then those members have other full-time jobs and only come to a board meeting once or twice a month. People who need help must go through a county manager. Plus, a smaller county with a smaller population can’t pay five board members’ expenses.”
Chattooga County Commissioner Blake Elsberry, whose population is significantly smaller, at 24,932 people, said sole county commissioners are effective.
“I am in my third year,” Elsberry said.
“We have lowered the millage rate, cut county debt, and we have the first rural ER coming.”
The four sole county commissioners, in lieu of not having colleagues on a board to sometimes disagree or tell them no, each said that every four years voters hold them accountable.
“This is not a slam dunk you-are-in-it forever type of job,” Taylor said.
“I know what people say about one man having all the power, but that’s not true.”
But isn’t it more difficult for a challenger to beat an incumbent?
Elsberry said no.
“I beat a 12-year incumbent,” Elsberry said.
“That’s because that person increased taxes, and there was a noticeable lack of advancement in the county.”
Seven years ago, Greg Hogan defeated Murray County sole Commissioner Brittany Pittman.
In the past year, the Cartersville-Bartow County Department of Economic Development’s website announced plenty of new growth, including a new electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing plant that could create 3,500 new jobs.
Union County Development Authority officials, meanwhile, reach out to new business prospects and describe their county as a place where new businesses can prosper due to its proximity to Chattanooga, Atlanta, Greenville, and Asheville.
In a few years, however, new residents could do away with a sole commissioner in their respective counties and instead have a board. As rural counties experience the inevitable changes that come with growth, time will tell if the sole commissioner practice fades away.