Commissioner Jim Tate of Highlands complained that the method for electing commissioners is unfair to candidates from districts representing Highlands and Nantahala.
“I have a problem with how you’re elected as a county commissioner now,” Tate said, broaching the issue during a county commissioner workshop two weeks ago.
Candidates from Highlands or Nantahala only have a shot at running for office once every four years, while commissioner hopefuls from Franklin can put their name in as often as every other year.
There are five seats on the county board. One commissioner is elected from the Highlands area, one is elected from the Nantahala area and the other three are elected from Franklin.
Commissioners serve four-year terms, but they have staggered election cycles, with part of the seats coming up for election one year, and the rest coming up for election two years later.
But with just one seat each from Highlands and Nantahala, candidates from those communities have to wait a full four years before the seat is back on the ballot. Candidates from Franklin have more chances to run since at least one of the three seats from that voting district would be on the ballot every other year.
“At some point this year, I want us to have that discussion,” Tate said. “There are a lot of other little reasons, too, but the greatest thing is to make it fair so everybody has the opportunity to run.”
Another concern of Tate’s is the way district lines are drawn for Highlands. Part of the district extends into the greater Franklin area, making it feasible that the county could have four commissioners from the Franklin area, and nobody hailing from Highlands.
Although commissioners are elected countywide by all the voters as a whole, regardless of what district they live in, candidates must hail from their respective districts, ensuring a voice for outlying communities on the county board.
Newly elected Commissioner Paul Higdon from Nantahala said he wanted to put the topic on one of the upcoming meeting agendas sooner rather than later. However, any changes would have to be made at the state level based on the county commissioner recommendations.
A few potential solutions were voiced by fellow commissioners.
Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin said one of the seats currently designated for Franklin could become an at-large, or countywide, seat. That would give the outlying commissioners with an extra opportunity to run for a seat.
Other solutions involved splitting the county into five districts, instead of three. Then, candidates from any given district would have an equal election cycle with just one shot every four years.
Commissioner Ron Haven said he would support a five-district system in which only the districts’ constituents elect each commissioner. Running a countywide campaign is difficult, and he prefers that each commissioner is accountable to voters only his own district.
“The people in Highlands should be the ones that vote for people in their district,” Haven said.
Commissioners have directed the county’s attorney, Chester Jones, to review the system — both the voting districts and election process — and report back to the board by March.
Corbin said Tate’s concerns are valid and is waiting to hear back from the attorney.
“There’s a little bit of an equity issue,” Corbin said. “I don’t know that we’ll do anything, but basically, we agreed to take a look at it.”