Candidates for mayor reflect on commission chairmanship

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

CANEY SPRINGS - Two of three candidates for Marshall County mayor were quizzed Sunday afternoon before a fire department board meeting and a day later the incumbent spoke on those topics including commission chairmanship and various ideas.

Chapel Hill Town Manager Mike Hatten, a leader of the Caney Springs Fire Department, posed questions before fire department directors addressed fire safety issues for their community. After Mike Spence introduced himself as a candidate for mayor who was there to listen and learn, Hatten asked his question. Does he want to be chairman of the county commission?

Not immediately after the election, Spence replied.

Later, Commissioner Scottie Poarch suggested the county commission have an electronic voting board so all commissioners vote simultaneously. County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett said, "That would be up to the commission if that's their wish. However, you have to find the money for that."

Hatten's question on chairmanship came with an observation: "When you're mayor and not chairman, you're a sitting duck," apparently because various decisions can be influenced by the chairman and/or when an issue is decided.

"I totally understand," Spence replied. "But that's something I don't want to get into right away," or any other power move such as "kicking and taking names...

"I don't want to chair too much, too soon," Spence said, explaining that he is reluctant to have "too many irons in the fire..."

He likened the situation to that of a factory manager with qualified people in various leadership roles. Stepping into the middle of a chain of command immediately is ill-advised.

"You do need leadership," Spence said. "But as far as how deep you want to get in to it... You want to get your feet wet later."

Spence also said, "The budget is going to be tight and if I'm elected, I'll work with you (the volunteer fire departments) any way I can."


Spence declared himself a candidate for mayor of Marshall County in early January.

County Commissioner Scottie Poarch declared himself a candidate for county mayor in early November.

Poarch was also asked if he wants to be chairman of the Board of Marshall County Commissioners.

"Sure," he replied. "The mayor ought to be chairman. He's got to be in charge."

Liggett was at a family gathering Sunday. Monday afternoon, he was asked the same question raised by Hatten. He was also provided an opportunity to speak on other issues raised during the firefighters' discussion in the Life Song Family Church at Caney Spring.

Liggett was nominated to be chairman, but he was not elected when now-former Commissioner Sam Smith was elected chairman. Since then, Commissioners Mary Ann Neill and Billy Spivey have been elected chairman of the commission.

Does Liggett want to be chairman now?

"If the commission so desires... That's the way it works," the mayor said. "To me it's not something I want for the prestige. I'd want to do a good job in that capacity."

If a commissioner wants to be chairman of the commission, it's assumed that they should campaign in a way that wouldn't violate the open meetings law.

Liggett didn't mention how a candidate for chairman would campaign, but his comment reveals a couple of political facts: There are only 19 prospective candidates for commission chairman -- 18 commissioners and the county mayor; And only 18 commissioners can vote for the nominees.

If a county mayor is chairman of the commission, the mayor would vote only to break a tie. If a commissioner is chairman, there's no restriction on when the chair votes.

Had Liggett been elected chairman of the commission, he said, "It would have added to the work load, but it was doable..." That, he said, is because of his eight years as a county commissioner from 1986-1994.

Asked to elaborate on other subjects, Poarch said, "The problem is unity" on the commission.

Commissioners have adopted many resolutions by unanimous votes, but there have been a series of split votes on issues that have revealed at least two factions among the commissioners.


And while Poarch didn't offer a solution to the split, he commented, "You have to be on good terms with all the commissioners."

Liggett's comment: "If everybody is agreeing on every issue, then I think you do have a problem." With diversity of opinion "you might get an idea that might not have come up... I see it as more of a difference of opinion rather than a lack of unity."

Still, Poarch said, there are frustrations on the panel. It's related to a restriction on discussions between commissioners.

The frustration, Poarch said, is out of concern that there might be an infraction of the Sunshine Law that calls for deliberations among elected officials at an open forum so the public may know officials' thinking before they vote on public business.

Asked if there could be more discussion at regular commission meetings, Poarch said, "You ought to have more discussion in the commission meetings."

Liggett said discussion during committee meetings might be seen as sufficient.

"By the time it (any spending issue) goes through two committees, you have ... about a third to half the commissioners knowing what's going on," the mayor said.


"We also," Poarch said, "ought to have recorded the committee meetings, and we ought to have one of those voting machines" such as what's used by other governments.

Rutherford County commissioners installed one when the courthouse in Murfreesboro was restored and the old Circuit Courtroom was transformed into a meeting hall for the commission. The voting board is similar to what's used by the Tennessee Legislature.

Such a system would be better than circumstances that allow commissioners to "look around and see" public reactions to the trend of the vote, Poarch said.

To address that concern, Liggett said the order of voting has been reversed two ways for roll-call voting. Instead of calling commissioners from District 1 first and ending with District 9, the roll call is reversed. The other method is to switch the order of calling commissioners within their districts.

Since Spence had been asked to speak about the chairmanship, so was Poarch. His answers were short, so he was asked to elaborate. Spence didn't interject his positions as Poarch spoke on other topics. In about 15 minutes, the fire department's board had a quorum and the subject turned to fire safety and equipment. Liggett was consulted to be sure all three candidates had an opportunity to speak on those topics.