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Hawkins urges voter-elected chair

Henderson County commissioners on Monday agreed to move ahead on redistricting to equalize the population of the five county commission districts but expressed less agreement on Commissioner Grady Hawkins' proposal to have voters elect the chairman of the board.

A chairman elected by the voters would require approval by the state Legislature. Currently, the board elects a chair every December. Redistricting is within the county commissioners' power.
Estimated population numbers show that the commission districts have become imbalanced since they were last adjusted in 2001. The largest district, Hawkins' southernmost District 5, has about 6,496 more people than the smallest, Commissioner Larry Young's District 3, which runs from Hendersonville to Mills River.
The board unanimously approved Hawkins' motion to direct county administrators to work with the Board of Elections to redraw the district lines. The board said it wanted the new lines to avoid putting two commissioners in the same district and avoid splitting cities or precincts.
Commissioner Tommy Thompson said he agreed with redistricting but was not ready to endorse a voter-elected chair.
An elected chairman, Hawkins said, would give voters a greater say in board leadership.
"When you look at reapportionment it's an opportunity for more participation with the county at large," he said. "There's several counties that do that."
Hawkins suggested voters could elect a chair in a variety of different ways. With the board election now staggered every two years — with three then two commissioners elected — the gavel could go to the highest vote-getter in each cycle.
Equal apportionment would mean that each district would have 21,605 residents based on current census estimates.
Hawkins' District 5, which runs along the South Carolina line from Flat Rock to Etowah, has grown the most since the last redistricting and would need to lose 4,500 people. The other four districts have a smaller deviation of 2,400 people. District 4, currently held by Thompson, takes in Dana, Edneyville and Bat Cave. It would lose about 400 voters. Chairman Charlie Messer's District 2, including Fletcher and Hoopers Creek, would gain residents.
Henderson County requires that candidates live in the district they're running in but does not bar them from moving out of the district once elected.
"For example, just in the last few years we've had a situation where a sitting county commissioner moved into another county commissioner's district, which left a district unoccupied," Hawkins said.
Board members agreed they'd like to change the rules to require commissioners to live in their district as long as they serve but County Attorney Russ Burrell cautioned them that the Constitution might bar that.
"We can try," he said. "There may be a barrier that we can't jump over."