Bill that shifts election date leads to political squabbling

State Rep. Barbara Sims was persona non grata with members of the local delegation Friday when her bill that shifts the election date for consolidated cities and counties from November to July passed in the House, 95-58.

She and other Republicans who voted for the bill are being accused of changing the date to dilute the black vote because minorities don’t turn out that much for primary elections. Some call the move a desperate attempt by the white power structure to maintain political control.

“It hurts that people think that,” Sims said. “It was not pleasant ... At one point, I stopped listening. It was just hurtful. It really was. I hate it because I don’t want Augusta to come off looking like such a fractured community.”

Democrat Rep. Quincy Murphy said the bill “sets the community back 20 years” and that he plans to ask the House to reconsider the vote next week. He also said someone will propose a resolution at Monday’s Augusta Commission committee meetings to leave the election in November.

“It will be interesting to see who supports it, and who does not,” he said. “You want to make it convenient for people to go to the polls in November in even-numbered years. The question would be why do you want to change it? The answer is you don’t want a lot of citizens in your community to participate. You feel your chances are better if they don’t. That’s why Republicans like nonpartisan elections.”

 

DOESN’T EARLY VOTING HAVE US VOTING YEAR-ROUND ANYWAY? Sims, however, said the bill might energize the voting all the way around.

“In the long run, we’re going to have more people going to the polls and voting,” she said. “I don’t understand the idea that people can only vote in November. Don’t we want to vote every time? Or do we want to vote once in every four years? I know if you can get people to the polls in November, you can get them to go in July. It fascinates me that people think they can’t vote in July.

“Somebody said, ‘It could be so hot in July.’ I said, ‘Well, it could be so cold in November.’

“And somebody said, ‘You might be on vacation in July.’ And I said, ‘There is absentee voting. Are you going to be on vacation a month?’ ”

Sims said she’s going to the polls every time they’re open.

“All I tried to do was clarify the law passed last year that said nonpartisan races in consolidated governments would take place during primaries in July,” she said. “Columbus, Ga., has always had nonpartisan elections in July. The intent of the bill last year was to get all nonpartisan elections done at the same time. So I took it to the lawyer that wrote the original, and he helped me clarify it so that it applied to all consolidated governments.”

 

THE BACK STORY: When approved in 1995 Augusta’s consolidation law stated that commission elections would be held in November in odd-numbered years.

“About eight years ago, the local delegation received a resolution from the county commission that the elections be changed from odd-numbered years to even years when you would have president or governor on the ballot,” Murphy said. “Plus, we wanted a majority of our citizens to participate and save the county money. And we knew November was the best way to accomplish that. It was unanimous. All members of the county commission voted to support that.”

Local delegation members told their colleagues Sims’ bill was not supported by members of the delegation or the community, Murphy said.

“In all major pieces of legislation that have affected the county commission we have been supported by a resolution from the commission with the exception of House Bill 776 which changes the election from November to July,” he said.

Murphy said last year’s bill was meant for consolidated governments, but Augusta’s government is different from others because it is a municipal form with a mayor and commission.

 

THE LAST PLACE TO FIND JUSTICE THESE DAYS: A bill to make county commission races partisan was introduced this year, but the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is not letting the bill come forward, Murphy said.

And last week, Democrat Sen. Hardie Davis accused the Republicans of trying to dilute minority voting strength and pledged to petition the U.S. Justice Department to reject the Senate Redistricting Committee’s drawing the 24th Senate District into Richmond County. The committee’s action adds Republican Sen. Bill Jackson to the Richmond delegation, bringing the number of senators in the local delegation to three.

 

LINES IN THE SAND: The Senate has stalled consideration of the district boundaries for the Augusta Commission and Richmond County Board of Education. The House had already passed the maps as local legislation. In the Senate, where the local delegation is evenly split, with one Republican and one Democrat, action halted. The bills sit in the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, which considers statewide bills rather than the committee that normally rubber-stamps local legislation.

 

UP IN SMOKE: Smoke and smoking were hot topics at last week’s commission meeting. First, commissioners rejected a tougher local smoking ordinance on a 3-6-1 vote. Those voting no said they were opposed to more government intrusion. During a commission retreat, Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said if smoking was illegal, he could vote for it. Commissioner Joe Jackson told Commissioner Corey Johnson, a proponent of the stricter ordinance, they would be “peeing up a rope” by passing it because there was no way to enforce it.

The second issue involving smoke was a $399,083 change order for a stronger smoke evacuation system for the TEE Center to meet Marriott Corporation International’s safety standards that exceed the state’s standards.

Oh Lord, how they do grandstand over anything related to what has become the biggest political football in recent history!

Commissioners’ questions to Administrator Fred Russell were reminiscent of the Watergate hearings. “What did you know and when did you know it?” they kept asking Russell who kept answering they’d discovered the discrepancy in October and had been negotiating with Marriott to resolve it since then. Then they wanted to know why he hadn’t told them about it sooner.

Commissioner J.R. Hatney said he was sick and tired of Russell springing things on them at the last minute. It’s all laughable when you consider the many meetings where they rubber-stamped change orders totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars without batting an eye.

What they really need is a smoke evacuation system for commission chambers even stronger than Marriott requires.

 

AUGUSTA DURING THE LATE UNPLEASANTNESS: Former Augusta Mayor Bob Young will be signing copies of his book The Treasure Train from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at Midtown Market on Central Avenue. The novel is set in Augusta during the close of the Civil War.

Lots of sex and violence? Read it and find out.

City Ink thanks Morris News Service writer Walter Jones for his contributions to this week’s column.

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