Peach Commission tables electing chairman, vice chairman

FORT VALLEY — In the final meeting for two of its members, the Peach County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday night to go with tradition rather than the law and tabled electing a new chairman and vice chairman until the January meeting.

Commission Chairman James Khoury and Vice Chairman Tom Palmer both leave office at the end of the year. Khoury was defeated by Melvin Walker in his re-election bid, and Michael Dinkins was elected to replace Palmer, who did not seek re-election.

Khoury, who has been in office 12 years, has served the last eight as chairman, re-elected by the other commissioners at their January meeting each year. And Palmer, a commissioner for eight years, has been selected as vice chairman for the last four. Over time, their reappointments became routine.

But when County Administrator Marcia Johnson realized after the election that a new chairman and vice chairman would have to be selected, she looked at the county code to see just how the process should be handled. When she couldn’t find anything outlining the process, she mentioned it to county attorney Jeff Lipford.

He began researching the matter and discovered that the selection of chairman and vice chairman are spelled out in a 1979 court order by U.S. District Judge Wilbur Owens, who ordered a new makeup of the board in the wake of a suit by the ACLU.

“Up until the 1960s, there was a county ordinary that ran the county,” Lipford said. “Then the legislature approved a county commission form of government that had three commissioners, one from Byron, one from Fort Valley and one from the county outside the cities. But then the ACLU sued, and Judge Owens set up the five-member commission we have now, with four district commissioners and one at-large.”

What no one apparently realized until now, Owens also called for the chairman to be selected from within the board by its members at its December meeting each year, and the vice chairman to be selected at the January meeting.

“It makes sense in that it would assure in election years that an experienced commissioner remaining on the board would be elected chairman. And in all the years they’ve elected chairman, only once, in 1994, was a new commissioner chosen. And even then, it was unanimous. It has always been an unanimous vote for chairman,” Lipford said.

But when outgoing chairman Khoury raised the matter near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, he said the commissioners wanted to stick with tradition and wait until January to elect its new chairman, giving the new members taking office a voice. He suggested not acting to elect a chairman, but Palmer made a motion to formally table the matter until January.

Lipford warned that since the commissioners now know the court order calls for the December election, it could put into jeopardy any actions the new board takes next year. But returning Commissioner Martin Moseley said he thought it would be better to be fair to the new commissioners and follow tradition rather than follow the letter of the law, and the board unanimously approved tabling the selection.

All of Tuesday’s votes were unanimous in what turned into a tribute session to Khoury and Palmer. Both were presented with plaques of appreciation for their service during the meeting, and the board approved a recommendation by the Peach County Development Authority to name the new road in phase III of the industrial park in honor of Khoury. And all of the department heads who addressed the board added their praises of the outgoing pair.

Khoury and Palmer, in turn, both thanked the people of Peach County and all the county employees for the opportunity to serve on the board.

In other action Tuesday, the board:

Ÿ Approved its 2009 budget on how to spend the 2008 special sales tax revenue of $15,452,919.

Ÿ Approved contracts of $6,600 and $8,600 for the architectural work for the North Peach County Park expansion and trail.

Ÿ Approved spending $395,622 for a new computer software system from Spillman Technologies for the emergency management office’s E-911 radio system that will be compatible with all law enforcement and emergency agencies in the county.

Ÿ Approved a bid of $589,950 from Southern Emergency Products for two new fire trucks.

Ÿ Tabled a request from Commissioner Walter Smith to add $44,000 to the $120,000 already budgeted for the health department. Smith wanted the money to keep the Byron satellite health department office open in the wake of state budget cuts.