June 22, 2000: A Public Affairs Pop Quiz

A little public affairs pop quiz, readers.  What are the duties of the Georgia secretary of state?  The labor commissioner?  What about the insurance commissioner?  Who is the commissioner of agriculture?  Who heads up the corrections department?  The revenue department?

Chances are that most of us don’t have a clue who these people are or what they do.  Yet, some – attorney general, agriculture, education, labor, insurance – are elected by us.  Others – corrections, transportation, natural resources, industry and trade, revenue, public safety – are appointed.  Why do we elect some and appoint others?  Does that mean some jobs are more important than others?   Are we any better off with an elected attorney general and secretary of state?  Should we also elect the revenue commissioner and the transportation commissioner?

Why don’t we also elect the cabinet members in Washington?   What is the difference in electing a state commissioner of agriculture and having the president appoint a secretary of agriculture in Washington?

Some of the department head jobs in Georgia seem to be parking places for those contemplating a run for governor.  That is rumored to be the case with our secretary of state, (Cathy Cox, in case you didn’t know) who is being whispered as successor to Governor Roy Barnes in 2006.  Mike Bowers, former attorney general, all but wore a “I am running for governor” sign around his neck until he forgot to tell a fawning capitol press corps about his extracurricular activities.

And then there is John Oxendine. He is your insurance commissioner, your fire safety commissioner, your industrial loan commissioner and somehow still finds time to be your comptroller general.  We elected him in 1994 and reelected him in 1998.

Oxendine is a name that comes up often as a Republican candidate for – surprise ! – governor.  While it is not spelled out in Commissioner Oxendine’s long list of job responsibilities, he also gets a blue light for his state-owned vehicle.  Big mistake.  A recent news report revealed that last fall, he totaled his state-owned vehicle (meaning that it is owned by you and me) to the tune of $19,000 responding to what he said was a “hazardous materials call” at the state government complex.  This is the second car you and I have bought him.  He did more than $17,000 in damage to another one four years ago dodging a deer in Gwinnett County.

According to the police who investigated the most recent incident, Commissioner Oxendine was driving lickety-split toward downtown Atlanta and was forced to stop at a red light at South Atlanta Road in Cobb County.   Deciding time was awastin’, he whipped out his trusty blue light in order to run the red light and promptly collided with a pickup truck.  Fortunately, neither driver was hurt.  How about those poor bureaucrats at the state government offices for whom the commissioner risked life and limb?  Seems like they didn’t know they were in danger because as of this writing, no one can find a report of any alarm at any state government building that day.  The Georgia Building Authority reports they even checked with Georgia State University and the MARTA station nearby for any reported alarms and came up empty.

Now both the state attorney general’s office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation are looking into how Oxendine could hear an alarm in Cobb County that nobody in downtown Atlanta could hear.   Which brings up an interesting point.  If Oxendine reported to the governor and didn’t have a good answer about why he was flashing his blue lights like a Kmart special, he likely would not be the current insurance/fire safety/industrial loan/comptroller general.  Roy Barnes would have already sent him packing.  As for the voters, we’ve got to wait until 2002 to make Oxendine answerable for his Barney Fife imitation.

I don’t know about you but I don’t feel any more qualified to judge the qualifications for the insurance commissioner or the agriculture commissioner than I do voting on Lawrence Summers to be U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.  We need a constitutional amendment to let the governor appoint the state heads.  That way we can be more assured that state government is pulling in the same direction and is not an amalgamation of individual fiefdoms, some appointed and some elected; some loyal, some not.  I think you would see a much more efficient government answerable to the governor who, in turn, is answerable to us.

Just think of the money we would save on blue lights and wrecked automobiles.