A Wall Street Journal article dated Tuesday, Oct. 23, highlighted the peculiarity – to the rest of the country – that Georgia is the only remaining state that allows a sole commissioner form of county government, and more so that only nine of its 159 counties are still governed in this form.
Walker County sole commissioner write-in candidate Ales Campbell “seeks to cut the job she’s trying to win,” the article says.
Campbell is adamantly running on a platform that promises a binding referendum in the next election cycle and a plea to the state legislature to allow a change in Walker County government to a multi-member board of commissioners.
Incumbent commissioner Bebe Heiskell believes that a sole commissioner form of government is perfectly effective as is, and prevents squabbling and gridlock between commissioners.
Despite their difference in opinions, both Campbell and incumbent Heiskell have one thing in common: they were both disappointed in the Wall Street Journal’s portrayal of Walker County and hope to have the chance to change the reporter’s mind should another visit take place after the election.
Heiskell thinks that the article’s writer, Cameron McWhirter, didn’t keep enough of an open mind regarding Walker County and its form of government.
“I think he (the reporter) came here to show that a sole commissioner form of government is outdated,” she said, noting that he painted a picture of a backwards, old-timey Walker County,” she said.
The article described the county as having “Confederate flags, hand-drawn signs for boiled peanuts and men in overalls” and “winding roads with names like ‘Straight Gut’ and ‘Hootie Hoo Holler.”
“I don’t think he saw the best part of Walker County,” said Heiskell. “I wish I could’ve showed him the better part of Walker County and showed him Mountain Cove Farms and that it is not a boondoggle.”
In the article, McWhirter had mentioned challenger Campbell’s frequent criticisms of the money spent by the county in 2008 to purchase and preserve Mountain Cove Farms.
“(The article) certainly is objective. But I wish that I had spent more time with him,” Heiskell said.
Nonetheless, she is happy to have had the coverage on such a national scale; the article regarding the Walker County commissioner race appeared on the Wall Street Journal’s front page.
“It was an honor to be covered in this big-deal paper. It’s the most circulated paper in the country.”
Campbell, too, felt that McWhirter had been a bit too brusque in his exploration of Walker County. “I had mixed emotions about it,” she said. “I knew the article was coming out and I felt that with it being the Wall Street Journal it would be a fair article...The only thing I didn’t like about it was the fact that it portrayed Walker County as a little backwards,” she said. “As a country, looking at Walker County, we do seem a little antiquated, a little foreign.”
Like Heiskell, she hopes to have a chance to show him another side of the county should he return.
“I asked him to please come back to Walker County and spend the day and let me show him that we are much more than confederate flags and boiled peanuts,” Campbell said.
Both Heiskell and Campbell felt that the article was specifically written to make the sole commissioner form of government look as backwards and antiquated as the portrayal of the county.
“To put in on the front page I think was a definite statement of oh, look here, Georgia’s the only state in the country that allows sole commissioners,” said Campbell. “We’re clinging to this form of government that the majority of people have figured out doesn’t work anymore.”
“He likened Walker County and our system to Boss Hogg on the Dukes of Hazzard,” she said of an audio recording that appeared on the Wall Street Journal website the day after the article was published.
Heiskell stated that, despite what the article may insinuate, other counties with sole commissioners are quite happy with their government, and that attempts to change them have not worked.
“Just because it's antiquated doesn't mean it's not effective,” she said. “Most counties that have a sole commissioner like it...Just because there’s not that many, it does not mean it’s archaic.” She noted that nearby Bartow County passed a referendum in 2008 to return to a sole commissioner form of government after having a multi-member commission, and that they are doing well with it so far.
Heiskell also suggested that should Campbell win, she may not follow through with her promise to work toward changing Walker County to a multi-member commission board. “My opponent in ’96 ran on (the campaign promise) that he was going to put in a term limit and put in a five-member board and after he was elected he never mentioned it again,” she said. “Maybe he learned that it’s not as good an idea as he had originally thought.”
Heiskell stands by the sole commissioner form, claiming that it allows for more transparency in county government. “I can’t pass the buck,” she said. “If I do wrong, I get the blame for it.”
Campbell, however, thinks that, thanks to the Wall Street Journal, Walker County as a whole has already gotten the blame for being so far behind the times. Nonetheless, whatever the article may say about her desire to effectively eliminate the position for which she is running, Campbell asserts that she has only the best intentions of the county at heart.
“I definitely don’t want to be the last county in the country that has a sole commissioner,” she said.
“I've had to analyze myself and ask, ‘Do I want to do this because everybody else is doing it or do I want to do it because I believe it’s the best thing for the county?’” she said. “As far as having a political agenda, I definitely do have a political agenda. I want to see us have some positive changes in Walker County. When we have a board (of commissioners) I believe its going to help us apply the principles of democracy even more in Walker County.”
“They will do a follow-up (article) I’m sure,” Campbell said, “and I would love for this next time the article to leave with a better impression of Walker County.”
Of the nine Georgia counties that still have a sole commissioner form of government, five – Walker, Chattooga, Murray, Pickens and Bartow – are in the northwest corner of the state. Two more, Towns and Union, are adjacent to each other in the northeast corner of Georgia, and the final two counties, Pulaski and Bleckley, are located alongside each other in the south central part of the state.