Augusta voters soon could get to say whether they’d like city commissioners to campaign by political party.
Four Augusta Democrats introduced House Bill 652 on Monday, the first day of the 2012 legislative session. The legislators are Reps. Quincy Murphy, Wayne Howard, Gloria Frazier and Earnest Smith. The only member of the local House delegation not co-sponsoring the measure is Rep. Barbara Sims, a Republican.
If the bill wins approval from both of the local senators, Hardie Davis and Jesse Stone, voters in November’s general election would have the nonbinding question on their ballots:
“Yes or no, shall the governing authority of Augusta-Richmond County be elected in partisan elections?”
MURPHY HAS sponsored legislation in the past to steer the county toward partisan elections. He has described the change as a way to inform the public about the stance of officials in partisan terms rather than racial ones.
Many debates in the Augusta Commission divide along racial lines, and Murphy says talking in such terms is destructive to the community.
The legislative delegation has five Democrats and only two Republicans, so partisan elections could give Democrats dominance in local elections.
Most Georgia city offices are nonpartisan, but Augusta-Richmond County is also a county, and most county elections are partisan.
Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver, who described himself as “happily independent,” maintained his opposition to making local races partisan, a stance he wrote about in a 2008 article for Georgia Municipal Association called “Moving Beyond Partisan Politics.”
“If they want to seek a referendum, I think that’s fine to ask the people. Personally, I’m opposed to local elections being partisan,” he said. “When you look at the mood of the country and how fed up people are with partisan politics, I don’t see the need to make local politics any more divisive than they are.”
There also might be unintended consequences if a referendum making Augusta city elections partisan was approved by voters. The charter that established consolidated Augusta-Richmond County in 1995 made the elections to mayor and commissioner nonpartisan.
IN AUGUSTA, home to a major Army installation, federal employees such as Commissioner Alvin Mason would be prohibited from seeking partisan elected office under the Hatch Act.
Commissioner Jerry Brigham said he wasn’t opposed to seeking a referendum on the matter but felt it was a power grab to increase the presence of declared Democrats in local government.
“Most people know the party affiliations of the commissioners anyway, if they have a party affiliation,” Brigham said. “It assumes that certain people wouldn’t vote for Republicans and certain folks wouldn’t vote for Democrats.”
Commissioner Grady Smith said another unintended consequence might be candidates opting to run with whatever party will get them elected. Richmond County rarely sees successful Republican candidates win election to countywide office, such as sheriff.
“That’s why you have a lot of people switching over,” Smith said. “I like it the way it is now.”
Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles viewed the move as a power grab.
“I think it’s just them trying to control local elections,” Bowles said of the Democratic members of the delegation who filed the bill. “I would like to know the justification for it.”
Bowles, who said he has no plans to run for another local office, said if the referendum passed it would make it more difficult for libertarians or independents to participate.
“I don’t see the need for partisan races. Everybody can pretty much tell who the Democrats are and who the Republicans are when it comes to budget decisions,” he said. “It’s quite obvious the two-party system has destroyed this country in the past few years.”
Davis also introduced legislation this week, Senate Bill 298, which would change the date of local elections in Georgia’s seven consolidated cities, including Augusta, back to November. A law enacted last year designed to change the election of nonpartisan judges also moved the date of the voting in consolidated cities and their school boards to the July primary.