Augusta officials say the city is exempt from a new state law moving the date of commission elections from November to July, but they’ve requested a second opinion from the Georgia attorney general.
House Bill 158, signed into law last year, moved the election date for nonpartisan judicial races, local school board offices and offices of consolidated governments to the date of the Georgia general primary, July 31.
That would mean five Augusta Commission and five Richmond County school board seats up for election in 2012 will be decided the same day voters choose among partisan contenders for sheriff, tax commissioner and other local posts.
Augusta Law Department interpreted the law differently, however, finding in a June 6 opinion requested by the Richmond County Board of Elections that Augusta-Richmond County, according to its charter, operates as a municipal government that is not subject to the new law.
On Sept. 20, the elections board voted to request that the opinion be reviewed by Attorney General Sam Olens, and on Oct. 11 Augusta general counsel Andrew MacKenzie forwarded the opinion to Atlanta, requesting Olens’ review “due to the great importance and interest regarding the possible changing of election dates.”
Olens’ spokesperson Lauren Kane had no timeframe for the office completing its review.
Augusta appears alone among Georgia consolidated governments in questioning the law’s impact.Elections officials in Athens-Clarke County and Columbus-Muscogee County placed the date of commission and council elections with the general primary, although Muscogee County Executive Elections Director Nancy Boren said that Columbus was consolidated in 1971 under a county form of government.
Among Augusta legislators who voted for the measure – Sens. Hardie Davis and Jesse Stone and Rep. Barbara Sims – at least one knew it could move Augusta elections.
“It was pretty obvious that it would apply to Augusta,” Sims said. “We’re a consolidated goverment.”
Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles said he believed the attorney general might have an opinion different from Augusta’s general counsel, although he said he is not in favor of moving the date.
“It will probably end up costing taxpayers an extra $100,000 a year,” he said, when nonpartisan runoffs are necessary.
But according to one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Terry England, the law’s purpose is to simplify elections and prevent costly late-November runoff elections, England told the Athens Banner-Herald.
The move would divide the high turnout expected for both the commission elections and the 2012 presidential election. About 75 percent of heavily-Democratic Richmond County voters cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election, while only 23 percent voted in the July general primary.
Richmond County school Bboard member Jimmy Atkins said board attorney Pete Fletcher also was examining whether the school board elections might be exempt, as the board’s charter pre-dates the law. If the school board is not, five seats are up for grabs in July, leaving less time for challengers to generate support.
A Columbia County elections official said her office already set the date for Columbia County school board races in July.