Originally created 02/10/02

Changes in Augusta government should be incremental



FOR 50 YEARS, state and local leaders struggled to consolidate the two heads of Augusta-Richmond County governments. For 50 years, we had bickering and bantering between the city council and the county commissioners. For 50 years, we in Augusta lived under two kings.

It wasn't until I introduced a bill into the Georgia Senate - and got that bill passed - that we were able to achieve the stability of a single governing body for the citizens of Richmond County.

In order to get that bill passed, we had to achieve real compromise and we had to require real compromise. This meant we needed blacks and whites, men and women, Democrats and Republicans to collaborate in order to achieve our goal of a consolidated governing body.

To make sure our commissioners acted as one and served the best interests of the citizens of this county, we set up 10 districts: eight residency districts and two at-large districts. And we put the real power of this governing body in the hands of the county commissioners themselves. It would take six votes, true leadership, and a collaborative effort of all county commissioners to bring about change.

WE DID THIS for a reason and that reason was to force the mayor to demonstrate strong, bipartisan leadership. We did this so that the mayor would lead us not with a vote or a veto, but with a vision, a dedication and an imagination. The form of government the leaders of the consolidation effort agreed upon was a strong commission and a weak mayor. Like it or not, that was the agreement.

What has happened thus far is that no strong leader has emerged. Charles DeVaney was a good example. He had very little actual power. But lots of personal power.

An example of the way this form of government works can be found right in our own backyard in the form of the Richmond County Board of Education.

Like the Augusta commission, the board of education has 10 representatives and a leader - Superintendent Charles G. Larke, who has no vote. Dr. Larke does not need a vote to accomplish the goals on his agenda. Dr. Larke's leadership skills, his ability to work with all 10 board members, his expertise and his willingness to work toward compromise for the good of the school system, show he does not need a vote to accomplish his goals or better the lives of his constituents, the students of Richmond County schools. Dr. Larke leads with a vision, a dedication and an imagination.

IT ALL COMES back to leadership skills. You don't change the structure of government to suit personalities. Whatever we do, it should be incremental.

Perhaps we should look at several different models in order to reshape our current situation:

Allow the mayor to hire and fire the administrator. This would permit continuity in approach.

Allow a quorum of eight to conduct business.

Allow the mayor the power to draft and present the budget.

Clearly establish the mayor as the chief executive officer and allow council a vote of no confidence by a two-thirds vote, which would trigger a new election for the mayor.

Could it be that those who want to change our current system do not realize the failing of our county government is not due to the lack of a veto for the mayor or a vote for the mayor? Could it be that the failing of our county government lies in the lack of leadership skills?

I BELIEVE THE time is upon us to begin the debate. I will keep an open mind. All proposals are on the table. Let the debate begin.

(Editor's note: The author, an Augusta Democrat, is Senate Majority Leader in the Georgia Assembly.)

FOR A BETTER AUGUSTA

All of Augusta's legislators have been invited to comment on the bill presented by Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta, which would make changes to the form of government in Augusta.

Burmeister's guest column appeared in the Aug. 3 Chronicle and can also be found at augustachronicle.com.

Excerpts of a response from Rep. Ben Allen, D-Augusta, were published in The Chronicle on Feb. 7. The entire text can be found online.)