A bill introduced in the state legislature would allow Mobile County residents to vote to increase the number of County Commission districts and representatives, from three to five.
Currently Mobile County is one of three counties in the state, along with Wilcox and Cullman counties, that have a three-member commission.
But first-term State Rep. Jack Williams, R-Mobile, wants to let residents decide whether it should stay that way. The bill is cosponsored by other members of the local delegation, including State Reps. David Sessions, Napoleon Bracy, James Buskey and Barbara Drummond.
Williams said constituents in the northern part of the county wanted him to introduce the bill because many feel they are unrepresented by having only three commissioners.
The way the current districts are arranged now, Williams said, residents of the city of Mobile have an unfair advantage when it comes to electing commissioners, because all three districts contain a portion of the city.
“Every county commissioner now is elected in Mobile,” Williams said.
With five commission districts, Williams said, places like Wilmer and Citronelle could have stronger representation. He said it would likely break down into two Democratic districts and three Republican districts.
The bill, if passed, would set up the referendum for the 2016 general election and would allow the commission’s five members to each be paid the same rate as members of the current three-member body, or roughly $70,000.
“It’s a big county,” Williams said. “I think there’s enough work to do for full-time positions.”
The referendum would ask voters two questions, according to the bill. The first would ask whether they favor the current three-member board. The second would ask if voters favored a five-member commission. A simple majority of voters would decide it.
If approved, the five districts would be of equal population using the most current U.S. Census data.
Williams said the vote would take place in 2016 to keep the county from spending money on a special election.
Commissioner Jerry Carl supports the idea of a five-member commission, but said the salary should be cut in half to reflect the change as a “real part-time job.” He has suggested increasing the number of members to five and paying each of them only $35,000.
“It just makes sense with the size of the county,” he said.
In addition, Carl said he’d support keeping the commissioners’ current three assistants and sharing them among five members, so it would not “cost taxpayers anything.”
The current three-member board, as a full-time job, attracts people with political aspirations, Carl said. That isn’t bad and doesn’t make them wrong, he said, it just isn’t easy for local business leaders to run because they don’t have the time to commit to a full-time job.
“You would get more of a variety of candidates,” Carl said. “Right now you get politicians looking to move up the ladder.”
Carl said the bill probably wouldn’t pass as it’s currently written because of the amount of the salaries attached.
Williams said right now he thinks it’s 50/50 whether it will pass or not.
“It depends on what the Senate does,” he said. “I know that the public wants it and a referendum allows everyone to vote.”
The bill, listed as HB86, was first read on March 3 and is currently awaiting a decision in a House committee.
Commissioners Merceria Ludgood and Connie Hudson could not be reached for comment for this story, as of press time.
Sessions said he typically likes to “streamline government,” but isn’t opposed to letting the people decide on it. He said it’s probably a good idea for the county and would allow two commissioners to meet and discuss business.
“It’s kind of silly two commissioners can’t have a conversation,” he said.
The obvious opposition to it, he said, would be those who oppose expanding the government and its cost to the county.
“There are pros and cons to all of it,” he said. “I know some folks in the country are for it, but I know folks who are against it.”
Sessions said he’s used to debating the subject, as this is not the first time a bill to increase the number of Mobile County Commissioners has been introduced.
“It has come up several times,” he said. “It comes up every time I’m up here.”
Mobile County is quite a bit larger than the other counties in the state with three-member commissions. Mobile, as of the 2010 census, has just under 415,000 residents, making it the second largest county in the state. The population means that each commissioner represents more than 138,000 residents. Cullman is the 19th largest county, with almost 81,000 residents and Wilcox is the 62nd largest county, with slightly more than 11,000 residents.