Editorial: Commission chairman's inflammatory text threatens SPLOST advisory committee's credibility

The members have not yet been appointed to the Whitfield County Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) 2020 advisory committee.

And already, we are calling into question how effective the committee can be.

In today's Daily Citizen-News, we reported on an incendiary cellphone text message sent on May 7 by Lynn Laughter, chairman of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners, to fellow commissioners.

In that message she told commissioners that anyone who contributed money to a local political action committee that helped defeat the proposed six-year, $100 million 1% SPLOST in March should not be on the advisory committee. Going further, she called those involved with the group Engaged Citizens for Georgia liars. She then named seven Whitfield County residents she does not want on the committee.

"I can handle people having a different opinion than my own," Laughter wrote. "What I can't handle is people lying — and they did: called it a tax increase, keep $100 million in your pockets like none of it came from out of the county, $34 million in front of a picture of one building. I think the people that actually contributed money to the political action committee to defeat the SPLOST should not be on any committee. These people are Jevin Jensen, Chris Shiflett, David Pennington, Cathy Holmes, John Didier, Marshall Mauldin and Phil Neff. There are plenty of other people who voted no who could be on a committee and don't tell lies."

Shiflett was Laughter's opponent in the commission chairman's race in the May 2016 Republican primary, and some others she named have run for or served in public office. Of those Laughter named, only Jensen applied. Pennington did not apply, but his son, David Pennington IV, did. The elder Pennington believes elected officials may hold their relationship against his son.

As you would expect, those Laughter branded as liars are not happy. Neff, who considered Laughter a friend, said he was shocked. Pennington, the former outspoken Dalton mayor, said, "I am somewhat taken aback that she resorts to name calling."

On Friday, Laughter didn't back down from her strong allegations.

"I feel like the Engaged Citizens for Georgia misled our citizens," she told this newspaper. "I am fine with having people on the committee who voted no on the SPLOST because you need people who have different opinions."

The advisory committee will make recommendations about which projects a future SPLOST should fund. There are 67 confirmed residents who applied to be on the 16-member committee which will have two alternates. Each of the five county commissioners will appoint two people from their district (Laughter is elected county-wide). The Dalton City Council as a group will appoint three members. Each of those two bodies will appoint one alternate. Each of the county's small cities — Cohutta, Tunnel Hill and Varnell — will appoint one person each. A timetable to form the committee has not been set.

Many community members were skeptical about the SPLOST advisory committee, expressing concern that elected officials would stack it with a pro-SPLOST crowd and leave out anyone with a dissenting opinion. The advisory committee would in effect be a rubber stamp for whichever SPLOST projects our elected officials wanted. With the committee's recommended SPLOST projects in hand, our elected officials would tout having a mandate from the people.

The process of forming the committee has already been tainted by missteps, including overly restrictive requirements to serve. Now, the public's confidence in how committee members will be picked has been shaken.

We are not directing any slings or arrows at the 67 people who applied for the committee. We have been on the record fully encouraging them to help shape our community's future, and we still feel that way strongly.

The first step to restore credibility in the not-yet-formed committee is for Laughter to give up her two appointments. Because of Laughter's revealed bias, her appointments would most probably face tremendous scrutiny. That would be unfair to them. Make the committee 14 members or have the other four commissioners collectively choose Laughter's two slots.

A SPLOST citizens advisory committee was an exceptional idea. But so far, the execution has been anything but.

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