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Macon signs resolution to restructure commission elections

Commission Chair Paul Higdon speaks during the Nov. 14 meeting. Bob Scott photo Commission Chair Paul Higdon speaks during the Nov. 14 meeting. Bob Scott photo

Macon County Commissioners are divided over a resolution in support of revising the system to elect county commissioners in order to allow for two at-large members. 

“This has been something I’ve talked about for a number of years. I’ve brought it up before previous boards and it was shot down,” said Chairman Paul Higdon.

Since 1978, the five-member board of commissioners has been elected from three districts with a single member elected from district one, which includes Ellijay, Flats, Highlands and Sugarfork, a single member from district three, which includes Burningtown, Cartoogechaye, Cowee and Nantahala, and three members with staggered terms from district two, which includes Iotla, Millshoal, North Franklin, East Franklin, South Franklin, Union and Smithbridge.

As a result of this structure, potential candidates from district two are eligible to file for election every two years, while potential candidates from the single-member districts one and three may only file for election every four years.

“In order to provide equal opportunity to all eligible citizens of Macon County to run for commissioner every two years, the Macon County Board of Commissioners believes that the best method would be for the election of one member from each of the three districts, with two at-large members with staggered terms,” the resolution reads.

In order for the election system to change, the North Carolina General Assembly would have to pass a local bill designating the change for the county.

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If the change were made, it would take effect beginning in the 2026 election cycle. At that time there would be two members up for election in district two, and one of those seats would become an at-large seat.

Chairman Higdon made a motion to approve the legislation and send it to the house of representatives for review and “hopefully a local bill.” Commissioner John Shearl seconded his motion.

Commissioner Gary Shields voiced his opposition to the resolution.

“I like the system we have now,” said Shields.

Commissioner Josh Young said that while he is in favor of working toward making the election fairer, he thinks the board should hear public input on the resolution.

“Before we print a bill and sign it to Raleigh, I feel like it’s my duty to at least ask for public involvement and get consideration from the public before I pass this thing,” said Young. “I do see where you’re going, and I do like that. So, I want to make sure it’s clear I’m not trying to run off the rails here, but I feel like I want to really go through this [with public input].” 

Commissioner Danny Antoine also voiced his support for the resolution but seconded Young’s opinion that a resolution like this should not move forward until the board receives public input.

“The way it’s set up right now, it’s not fair,” said Antoine. “Because in our district, somebody can run every two years, but for the both of you [Shearl and Higdon], that locks that in for four years. No one can do anything for four years.” 

“It is very unfair the way commissioners are elected,” said Shearl. “Through this whole process, the state legislative body can introduce a local bill without any action of this board. This is a very unfair election process to the citizens of Macon County.”

Young added that while he doesn’t have a problem with the state looking into fair measures for Macon elections, he wanted to hear input from residents in Highlands and Nantahala.

“I think it’s going to hurt both of them,” said Young. “Highlands is the largest tax revenue we have in Macon County, and I feel like they need representation that’s local to Highlands. The way it’s presented right here, I would very likely represent Highlands.”

Young occupies one of the three seats representing district two, two of which would become the at-large seats. If a bill were to pass in the manner that the resolution requests, Highlands would still have local representation — one commissioner elected solely by the votes of people living in district one. There would also still be one commissioner elected only from voters living in district two and another elected only from voters in district three. However, the remaining two seats would be elected based on votes from the entire county, rather than a specific district.

The reason that there are currently three commissioners representing district two and only one representative from each of the other districts is the higher population in district two.

“This right here is saying that we recognize an unfair setup in Macon County, would you please look into this,” said Shearl. “That’s basically what this resolution is saying. We can’t do it; the state has to do it on local business.”

Commissioners Higdon, Shearl and Antoine voted in favor of the resolution; Commissioners Young and Shields voted against. At the same meeting the board voted on a resolution to change another election in Macon County, to make the school board a partisan election. That resolution was tabled because commissioners wanted input from both the public and the school board.

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