Originally created 11/04/99

Meetings lacking support



ATLANTA -- Augusta Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker is one of Roy Barnes' key allies, so it made sense when the governor appointed him to his education reform commission.

But state records indicate Mr. Walker didn't attend the initial meeting when the 64-member commission was sworn in five months ago. He also hasn't shown up at other meetings of the full commission or the committee he "serves" on, records suggest, although officials say he organized a public hearing in Augusta.

Mr. Walker isn't alone. Mr. Barnes' legislative leadership team, which was appointed to the commission and will shepherd the governor's school reform bills through the chamber during the 2000 General Assembly session, regularly has missed meetings.

Such spotty attendance has bolstered the concern that Mr. Barnes' panel is merely masking the fact that the governor knew what he wanted to do about Georgia's schools before the task force was even formed.

"The whole commission situation is somewhat odd. You hope it's not window dressing on the most important subject there is," said Sen. Bill Stephens, R-Canton.

"I don't know it's a done deal. I'm sure there are some things brought up (by the commission)," said Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah. "I do think a lot of what will come out will be predetermined by the governor."

Sen. Steve Thompson, D-Powder Springs, Mr. Barnes' Senate floor leader, responded: "There are some things Roy didn't think about that are pretty good ideas (being recommended by the commission). There will definitely be things Barnes always knew he would do."

Sen. Charles Tanksley, R-Marietta, a Barnes assistant floor leader and member of the commission, argued it's unfair to characterize the commission as "window dressing" for a governor who already has made up his mind.

"I don't think the commission is solely an exercise in meeting holding," said Mr. Tanksley, who has missed several of the meetings. "I think a lot of that goes on in government."

While Mr. Barnes has some strong ideas about school reform -- including plans for an accountability system -- Mr. Tanksley said the commission has succeeded in offering a forum for a wide range of voices to be heard.

Commission expenses have reached $129,000 so far, not including the salaries of dozens of state employees who have been assigned to work on the reform effort.

Mr. Tanksley said he couldn't attend some meetings because he was busy in his law practice, the same firm Mr. Barnes belonged to.

"Between my family and work and the number and length of these meetings, I simply couldn't participate full time," Mr. Tanksley said. "If I could afford to take time off from work, I probably would be at every meeting."

The commission is filled with business people, but state lawmakers on the task force -- the people who will be voting on Mr. Barnes' bills -- have had the poorest attendance record.

Commission records don't show Mr. Walker attending any of the panel's meetings or the school safety committee he was assigned to. Those records did not include public hearings, and Mr. Walker said he attended a couple of them.

Nine lawmakers on the commission were recorded as missing an Aug. 16 meeting, and five missed the full body's Oct. 14 and 15 sessions. Lawmakers regularly have missed meetings of the committees that are formulating recommendations Mr. Barnes is supposed to use to help draw up legislation.

Mr. Walker argued that his lack of attendance hasn't hurt his ability to participate in the reform effort because he gets weekly briefings on the commission's progress. Mr. Walker, Mr. Tanksley and Mr. Thompson, who also missed several meetings, said they received stacks of materials on issues ranging from dropout prevention to school violence that the commission debates during meetings.

"I have a stack of paper at home that stands 3 1/2 feet high," Mr. Thompson said.

Nonetheless, Mr. Johnson said, "They are going to do whatever the governor says. That's what that (the low attendance) tells me. Attendance isn't required when you're just going to vote `yes."'

Mr. Thompson said he has missed some meetings because he serves as chairman of a national panel studying transportation issues. The missed education commission meetings, he added, won't keep him from being able to sell Mr. Barnes' plan on the Senate floor next year.

"The (education) professionals are going to do the job of putting together what needs to be done," he said.

Reach James Salzer at (404) 589-8424.