Disband the 9? Commissioners face tough decision

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 24, 2002

It’s only a matter of time, according to Shelby County attorney Butch Ellis. Ellis warned members of the county commission about impending trouble regarding the setup of the county’s nine-member governing body.

&uot;Unless some remedial action is taken, (a recent court ruling) will have far-reaching consequences,&uot; he told commission members.

The current setup of the Shelby County Commission was determined by consent decree in 1990 with nine commissioners and rotating the chairman either every year or every two years.

Prior to that, Shelby County’s governing body consisted of a four-member commission with the probate judge serving as chairman. Commissioners lived in their districts but ran at large. In 1959, it was amended so that the commissioners would run in the districts in which they live.

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled in May 2002 that the move from a four-member, or four-district, commission was unlawful without a state statute.

&uot;You are vulnerable on a couple of points,&uot; Ellis told the commission. &uot;There are lawyers out there looking for fees who would file in circuit court here in Shelby County or federal court in Birmingham and force you to re-form your districts based on the one-man, one-vote rule.

&uot;They could also throw out the current commission on (the May ruling).&uot;

That ruling has already affected the Baldwin County Commission which was given 14 days to dissolve its current seven-member governing body and submit a plan to revert to the four-member panel in place in 1931.

According to media reports, the Baldwin County Commission had two weeks to re-district into four areas with one commissioner per area who would be elected countywide.

Ellis offered the commission a variety of options to fix the problem.

&uot;We can stick our heads in the sand, wait and see what happens or we can redistrict based on one-man, one-vote and wait and see,&uot; he said. &uot;I’m convinced, though, that this lawsuit is coming, and it would be best if we could tell the judge ‘We’re solving this ourselves.’&uot;

Ellis offered a solution.

&uot;Any remedy done through the Legislature would probably work,&uot; he said. &uot;If you people and (Probate) Judge (Patricia) Fuhrmeister could come to unanimous agreement on what you want done, I think we could get it through the Legislature.&uot;

The emphasis, he said, is on &uot;unanimous.&uot;

&uot;That’s the only way we’ll get it passed through our Legislative Delegation.&uot;

Otherwise, Ellis said, the commission will probably be forced by the courts to return to the governing body of 1949.

&uot;Going from four to nine was not painful,&uot; Ellis said. &uot;But I’m convinced that going from nine to four will wreck the probate judge, will wreck you and your system of committees &045; all the positives you’ve accomplished over the last years will disappear.

&uot;The options are endless, but if you don’t do something proactive, we’ll lose control.&uot;

The Players

Nine may become four and one probate judge may find herself at the helm.

That’s the situation for the nine-member Shelby County Commission and Probate Judge Patricia Fuhrmeister.

&uot;It’s not something any of us expected,&uot; Judge Fuhrmeister said, &uot;but I think I’m certainly capable of doing a good job and will ultimately do what’s best for Shelby County.&uot;

She said when rulings from the various courts were handed down, the writing was on the wall, so to speak.

&uot;We could all see the potential for our present district system to be found invalid because of court rulings in recent years,&uot; she said.

If she should end up at the head of a four-member commission, she is confident she could handle the extra responsibility.

&uot;I’ll approach it as I approach any other extra responsibility. Like I tell my staff, the fact that we’re busy does not mean we don’t have to meet our legal obligations,&uot; Fuhrmeister said.

At presstime, the county commission and Judge Fuhrmeister had not met face to face to discuss the issue; although, the judge has met with the county attorney Ellis and been briefed on the problem and its ramifications.

&uot;I would certainly hope we could come to some sort of agreement,&uot; she said. &uot;It’s incumbent on all of us to sit down and try to reach a consensus on what’s best, not for us as individuals, but for Shelby County. Hopefully, we will be able to work together to find a solution that will please everyone, be best for Shelby County and pass legal muster.&uot;

Members of the County Commission were in agreement and discussed their wishes for the future of the commission following their regular meeting on Monday.

They were instructed by Ellis: &uot;Bear in mind, you’re looking for what you would prefer versus the court-ordered solution.&uot;

Commissioner Armstrong expressed concerns about returning the county to a four-member commission with the probate judge as chair.

&uot;I think it should stay like it is and elect the chair from the inside,&uot; he said.

Most of the commissioners agreed with him, including Commissioner Billy Thompson.

&uot;Me, myself, I like my job and I don’t want to see no lawyer, no judge, nobody take it away from me,&uot; Thompson said. &uot;Keep it just like it is including rotating the chair.&uot;

Commissioners Dan Acker, Joel Bearden and George Dailey agreed.

Commissioner Jimmy Bice said nine is the only workable solution.

&uot;Nine, because I’ve only been here a short time but I think it works. I can represent my district and I know where things are. I know the people,&uot; he said.

Commissioner Lindsey Allison also agreed, although she indicated she would not have a problem with any number — five, seven or nine.

&uot;Each of us bring a unique perspective to the commission. I’m in favor of bringing as much to the table as we can,&uot;she said, &uot;with everyone elected from a district.&uot;

Commissioner Larry Dillard suggested an alternative.

&uot;I don’t believe there’s any need for nine commissioners. Five or seven could get the job done,&uot; he said.

He suggested four districts evenly divided from north to south with the commission chairman elected at large by everyone in the county.

He said later, however, that if nine was the wish of the other commissioners, he would &uot;learn to live with it,&uot; as long as the nine districts were &uot;divided in a reasonable fashion.&uot;