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Divided commission a recipe for gridlock

It did not take the newly sworn in Pike County Commission long to get back into some old and distressing habits.

The governing body’s first meeting on Wednesday quickly devolved into partisan bickering over who should serve as the group’s chairman for the next year.

Republican Commissioners Robin Sullivan, Jimmy Barron and Karen Berry voted in favor of Sullivan staying on as chairman for another year. Democrats Charlie Harris, Homer Wright and Ray Goodson voted against Sullivan and favored Wright for the position.

The meeting ended without a new chairman being named, and with the commission clearly divided along party lines.

In theory, Sullivan is still the chairman. County Attorney Allen Jones said during the meeting that a prior court ruling allows for the current chairman to stay in the position another year if the commission fails to appoint a new one.

But Harris disputed Jones’ legal advice by strangely, and by all accounts erroneously, saying that the state Open Meetings Act requires the commission to not have a chairman at the first meeting.

Harris’ argument is rendered all the more preposterous by the fact that in 2005, when Harris was chairman of the commission, he served another year after the commission was split and failed to appoint a new one.

The annual vote for chairman is almost always a telling moment for the county commission. In truth, most resolutions that come to the commission table pass unanimously, with any disputes about the issues being settled at work sessions prior to the actual vote.

But the vote for chairman is a rare moment when alliances and divisions within the commission come to the forefront. A quick glance at votes for chairman in recent years shows a clear divide among commissioners that has remained constant for years.

In 2004, Wright nominated Harris to be chairman, with Goodson and the late David Carpenter, a Republican, also voting in favor of him. Barron and Sullivan opposed.

In 2005, Carpenter voted with Barron and Sullivan against Harris, while Wright, Goodson and Harris voted together. Without a majority vote, Harris served another year as chairman.

But in 2006 Sullivan won the chairman’s seat when Goodson switched and voted with the Republicans, leaving only Harris and Wright to oppose Sullivan’s nomination.

The next year was a rare moment of unity. Sullivan was unanimously reappointed chairman, possibly because Harris and Wright knew they didn’t have Goodson’s vote.

But Wednesday saw a return of the clear split between Republicans and Democrats, a divide that Harris only made deeper with his antics.

Rather than accept another year with Sullivan as chairman, Harris egged on the dispute by lodging a flimsy complaint against a clear commission precedent that he accepted without a second thought in 2005 — when it benefited him.

The partisan divide on the commission is a recipe for ongoing gridlock unless someone is willing to play peacemaker.

It is all the more troubling to see such division because 2004 was in may ways a new era for the county commission.

During the 2004 election, local voters dumped four incumbent commissioners in favor of Sullivan, Wright, Carpenter and Barron. It is likely no coincidence that the previous commission had been notorious for disputes, division and getting little done.

The new commission members managed to overcome their differences and worked well together during the past four years. They passed meaningful resolutions including a 10-year debt reduction plan and a revised 1-cent sales tax plan that is generating more than $700,000 of much needed revenue for the county.

Voters rewarded the commission this year by overwhelmingly reelecting all the incumbent commissioners except Carpenter, who died in January.

These commissioners have an obligation to live up to the support voters have shown them by finding common ground and working together.

Whether Sullivan serves another term, or another commissioner is elected, whomever chairs the commission should lead with a spirit of bipartisanship from the start.

The commission chairman has no more power than any other commissioner, but he or she is the one who presides over all meetings and is the de facto spokesman and leader for the group. The chairman can set the tone of cooperation, or division, that will guide the group for the year ahead.

The chairman is also a member of at least one vital board — the advisory committee that distributes $150,000 of sales tax money to local non-profit agencies and organizations. Whoever the commission selects as chairman should be prepared to distribute that money fairly and responsibly.

Over the last four years, the current commissioners have done much to rebuild the county commission’s image as an efficient governing body that can do good of. Wednesday was a step backward, but it is not too late to regroup and set the stage for another strong four years.

The question is, who will the peacemakers be?

Matt Clower is news editor of The Messenger. He can be reached at 670-6323.