Civics 101: representation at the county level in Tennessee

J. H. Osborne • Mar 25, 2019 at 6:00 PM

Over the last two weeks, we’ve used Civics 101 to give brief overviews of how local city residents are represented on municipal governing bodies. Some city voters are represented by a specific alderman or city council member, while others are represented, at least in part, by “at large” aldermen or council members. But what about county residents? How are they represented in county government?

A county commission is the governing body of Sullivan, Hawkins and Washington counties in Tennessee. County commissioners are elected by each county’s residents (including those who live within city boundaries because much of a county’s funding comes from county property taxes, which are levied on city parcels at the same rate as non-city parcels). County commissioners are elected by district. Voters also elect a county mayor.

County commissions elect a chairman, and traditionally that has often been the county mayor. But it is not mandated by law that the county mayor be the chairman. 

Under the Tennessee Constitution, many county departments are controlled by an elected official. These are known as the constitutional officeholders, and they include the sheriff, trustee, county clerk, register of deeds and several others. They all are elected by, and answer to, voters as well.

The county mayor and county commissioners are elected to four-year terms in Sullivan County, and the whole group, along with most other officeholders, is on the ballot every fourth August. The current batch just got elected in August 2018. For most seats, the next election cycle will take place in 2022.

In Sullivan County, there are 11 commission districts and a total of 24 commissioners. There are between one and three members per district. The number of members in a district is based on population and the “one man one vote” rule — each commissioner is supposed to represent roughly the same number of people.

If you don’t know which district you live in or the name of your commissioner or commissioners, you may look at district maps on the Sullivan County Election Office’s website. If you are registered to vote, you may confirm your status through a state website, which will tell you — if you are in fact registered — which district you are in at all levels of government as pertaining to elections and voting.