If ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
That seems to be the thinking of the current Cullman County Commission — one of the last two Alabama counties that selects commissioners in at-large elections. While the 65 other counties have transitioned away from the antiquated system in favor for district representation, Cullman and its western neighbor, Winston County, are content with the structure of the entire county deciding who gets a commission seat.
“This commission has worked very well together. We can sit down and discuss issues and work through them,” said Chairman Kenneth Walker. “I don’t think districts are a good idea, personally. If we added two more comissioners, that would mean two more salaries and two more vehicles, and that wouldn’t be good with the budget we have.”
Although they represent the entire county, Associate Commissioner Darrell Hicks serves in Place 1 for the east side while Associate Commissioner Stanley Yarbrough serves Place 2 for the west side.
“I think it works because no one person can try to supercede the other,” said Yarbrough of the current system. “The key to any sucessful governing body is people working in harmony, and I think we’ve done that. You get too many people in there, and it’s just more bureaucracy.”
Added Hicks: “Three people work well together.”
Mobile County has a three-member commission, but the county is split into three districts with a commissioner elected from each. The three commissioners choose among themselves who will serve as chairman.
The practice of at-large elections for county commissions date back to their establishment by the state constituition, said Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Alabama Association of County Commissions.
“Historically, that’s how county commissioners were elected, and it does accomplish the prinicipal of ‘one man, one vote,’” Brasfield said. “Is there some magic number that works better than others? I don’t have the answer for that. I think if there was one, all the counties would have gravitated toward that. It’s just hard to say that one system works better than another.”
For some commissioners who have made the switch, the change has brought progress.
“I think it produces higher-caliber candidates,” said Emmitt Jimmar, District 4 Colbert County Commissioner. “It brings the elected official closer to the people.”
Jimmar has served on the commission since 1988 when it converted from at-large to district representation. The chairman position rotates every eight months among the commissioners. He believes commissions comprised of “top vote-getters” produces a closed system where elected officials are all of “like political thought.”
“The difference to me is that commissioners are more serious and humble now and not intent on being politcal gurus just to get votes,” Jimmar said.
Longtime Winston County Commission Chairman Roger Hayes believes the current three-member structure of his commission is serving his county just fine. Echoing the sentiments of Cullman County commissioners, Hayes said he thinks adding commissioners would cause dissension.
“Politics is politics, and more people can mean more squabbling,” Hayes said. “I don’t see it as an advantage having more people. It would cost more money because you would have to pay their salaries and benefits, buy more equipment and so on.”
While the issue of adding county commissioners came up during the 2010 election, Walker, Hicks and Yarbough said they haven’t heard from residents about it since. Winston County voters have twice rejected district representation, Hayes said.
“If the people of the county decide that’s what they want to do, then we’ll do it,” Yarbrough said.
* Tiffeny Owens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 256-734-2131, ext. 135.