Henry Republicans will hold onto the County Commission seat left vacant by the death last week of Gary Barham.
Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this week signed into law Senate bill 22, which allows the GOP to suggest a replacement for Barham’s seat until a special election can be held in June. Barham, a Republican who had represented District 3 on the commission since 2013, died March 2 from complications of COVID-19.
The move has caused a rift among Henry Democrats because the Senate bill’s sponsor was Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Ellenwood). Some Democrats on the Commission said the seat should have been left open until the special election, while Jones argued the county needs to be transparent and respect voters who selected a Republican for Barham’s district.
That has taken on increased importance because Henry, a once rural Republican stronghold, has trended Democrat as it has become metro Atlanta’s second-fastest growing county. In recent elections, Henry residents backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 and President Joe Biden last year.
Democrats also hold four of the six seats on the Henry County Commission and it is speculated that they could pick up Barham’s seat in the special election.
“This is something that is just temporary, so that you won’t have that friction in there and you won’t have disruption in the community by people on both sides saying there were under the table or backroom deals,” Jones said in explaining why he pushed through SB 22.
Commissioner Dee Clemmons, a Democrat who backed keeping the seat open, called the move voter suppression. She said the new law takes the power from residents to choose their leader and gives it to a party.
In addition, that person’s time on the board gives him or her an advantage in running for the seat to complete Barham’s term.
The Democrat-led board will have to approve any selection the Republicans put forth before he or she can be seated, which Clemmons thinks won’t happen until April because there is only one meeting left in March and the GOP may not have a candidate ready.
“You want to people someone on the board for three meetings just so they can have incumbent behind their name on the ballot,” Clemmons said.
SB 22 also gives the Commission chairperson more authority over top county administrators, such as the county manager, and creates an ethics board to address any concerns citizens may have about the way Henry officials conduct themselves. Jones said he felt it was necessary because of acrimony between some commissioners that has led to unprofessional behavior.
But Bruce Holmes, another Democrat on the commission who favored keeping the seat vacant, said the law will further divide the board because members will feel there is a pecking order instead of each having equal say.
“This is all wrong,” he said. “I’m not happy with it, and I’m sure not a lot of citizens will be happy about it.”