Augusta’s charter trumps a new state law that tried to move the date of Augusta Commission elections from November to July, according to an opinion issued Wednesday by a deputy Georgia attorney general.
The opinion letter, provided at the request of Augusta general counsel Andrew MacKenzie, supports the city law office’s ruling that Augusta-Richmond County, despite being a consolidated government, operates as a municipality for election purposes and is exempt from the date change.
Passed last year, House Bill 158 moved the election date for local school board offices, judicial races and offices of consolidated governments to the date of the Georgia General Primary, July 31.
The change would have moved the date of five commission elections next year, but a “municipality” exception within Georgia laws permits Augusta’s charter to set city election dates, which the charter specifies are to be on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, according to the opinion letter from Deputy Attorney General Dennis Dunn.
That, for elections purposes, Augusta is a city, not a county, places Augusta in a unique position, because all other Georgia cities hold municipal elections in odd-numbered years, said Dunn, the deputy attorney general for government services. Augusta’s charter places elections in even-numbered years.
Dunn’s opinion also criticized the General Assembly for enacting House Bill 158 without full knowledge of how the statute would be applied to consolidated governments. The decision regarding Augusta’s election dates might be different from that made in other consolidated governments, he said. In Georgia, there are seven consolidated city-county governments.
Former Augusta Commission candidate Sean Frantom said he was a bit disappointed by the decision. A shorter election cycle, with qualifying in May and elections in July, would mean less fundraising and greater prominence on the ballot, he said.
“I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle” on the presidential election ballot, Frantom said, though he said he hasn’t determined whether he will seek the District 7 commission post next year.
Richmond County Board of Elections Executive Director Lynn Bailey said that unlike consolidated Athens-Clarke and Columbus-Muscogee, Augusta-Richmond County has always conducted its elections as a municipality, not a county. Bailey applauded the opinion for settling the city date issue and supporting the decision of Augusta’s law office.
The same legislation approved last year that tried to move the date of school board elections to July also leaves the date of five Richmond County Board of Education elections uncertain.
School board attorney Pete Fletcher said the system is one of six formed before 1877, the date of the Georgia constitution, so the schools’ charter might preclude the new law, although the legal question has not been decided.
Fletcher said he will present recommendations regarding the dates when the board convenes in January. Five school board posts come open in 2012.