Columbia County's political parties in recent years have increasingly used their control of the primary election process to put questions in front of voters.
The primary questions are just straw polls, binding on no one. But they are a great way of encapsulating public opinion, especially on hot-button issues.
They also create a historical record that can come back to haunt.
In 2000, Alvin Starks led the county's Republican Party. He opposed the idea of creating a countywide elected County Commission chairmanship, fearing among other things that the position would carry an inflated salary.
Plus, Starks and some Republicans were angry that the idea came from the top down: the county's legislative delegation had put together the proposal to create the elected chairmanship, and then with the county commission set up a committee to study the idea, ratifying it with an "advisory referendum" scheduled for that November's ballot.
To steal some of the proposal's steam, Starks put two questions on the Republican ballot that July. To call the questions "loaded" would be to call Ted Kennedy "plump."
The straw poll had two questions. The first was a softball, asking voters if they agreed with the five-commissioner form of government with the chairman chosen from among the sitting commissioners, with annual pay of $10,500.
The second was a hardball. It asked voters if they wanted to change to an elected "full time commission chairperson with a salary range of $75,000.00 to $100,000.00 plus additional expenses." (Note that the numbers included the digits after the decimal point to make them seem even bigger.)
To no one's surprise, voters approved the first question overwhelmingly, by 84 percent, while 78 percent rejected the second.
Voters recognized the hype, however, and 75 percent of them in November approved the creation of an elected chairmanship. State lawmakers then made the changes in county government accordingly. Then, in 2002, Ron Cross was elected (in the Republican primary) as the chairman.
On that same 2002 ballot, in another GOP straw poll, voters said they wanted to create an elected school board chairmanship (coming soon), set up a separate Columbia County chamber of commerce (done) and have fire service fees collected countywide (done).
GOP voters also opposed county government consolidation with Harlem and Grovetown, which tells you how these issues keep popping back up.
What also is now popping back up is Starks' opposition to the creation of the elected chairmanship. Back in 2000, when former Augusta Chronicle editorial page editor Phil Kent was writing a political column, he commented that the elected chairmanship's "two leading 'no' proponents are GOP Chairman Alvin Starks and his motor-mouth ally, Bob Beckham."
Well, now Starks is signing up to run for the chairmanship - and Beckham is his campaign manager!
The candidacy proves Starks has gotten over his aversion to the post. And it will highlight the fact that in spite of the 2000 straw poll's implied warning, the high pay for the chairmanship never materialized. The base pay is still just $10,500 per year, though Cross earns $12,837.72 based on completion of the state Commission Certification Program and annual cost-of-living adjustments.
More straw-poll questions are in the works by both parties for this year's primaries. The candidates will be finalized when qualifying closes Friday at noon; poll questions are due Monday.
Expect to see questions geared toward expressions of nervousness over the county's growth. And don't be surprised if, years from now, the answers raise more questions for other would-be candidates.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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