Originally created 02/15/02

Cheeks: Changes are in order for Augusta's consolidated government



SOME MAY remember that seven years ago the City of Augusta was suffering under the weight of an economic crisis. Augusta and Richmond County had defeated two previous attempts at consolidating our city and county governments.

After many meetings with the elected officials of both governments, many public hearings and meetings with community and civic leaders of Augusta and Richmond County, I was persuaded that any change in the then city and county government structure was better than the status quo.

Based on these recommendations, a consolidated government structure was drafted and was approved by the people.

House Bill 805 put together a compromise so that the City of Augusta and Richmond County governments could be consolidated (we knew this was not perfect legislation). The original legislation provided that the local governing authority could make changes with a two-thirds vote of the commissioners. This was done to keep control of our government locally.

The promise of a consolidated government was that taxpayers would not be subjected to increased taxes and there would be no duplication of services. This, in turn, would lead to a smaller government.

NOW, SEVEN YEARS later, relations among the commissioners have worsened - our government has stagnated - and it appears no one is in charge of our government.

In the past several years, more than 17,000 people have moved out of the county, and in the last two years we have lost more than 2,000 jobs.

It is disappointing to see that the commissioners cannot reach a consensus to make the changes necessary to our current government structure, possibly preventing the above and encouraging new businesses and people to reside in our county.

I am convinced that certain fundamental changes must be made to return our government to its original focus: to serve the interests of all citizens of Augusta.

Since there is no consensus among the commissioners, I agree with Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta, and others, that change to our county's government should be initiated by the Richmond County legislative delegation.

THESE CHANGES must be submitted to the people for their approval. A referendum will ensure that we have a government of the people, not politicians.

These are some of the changes I would suggest for our consolidated government:

Give the mayor veto authority or a vote (one or the other.) If he has veto authority, it may be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the commission;

Provide for the mayor pro tem to be elected from the two at-large districts. These two would rotate every two years.

Allow the mayor to hire the county administrator and report to him. The county administrator can be dismissed by a two-thirds vote of the commission.

The administrator should have the authority to hire and fire department heads. With a two-thirds vote, the commission could override the administrator's decision. Department heads should have the authority and qualified skills to run their departments (eliminating favoritism from elected officials).

Provide that an abstention, without justification of conflict of interest, must be counted as a "no" vote.

HOWEVER, THE simplest way to meet the needs of Richmond County is what exists in other Georgia counties: Require all candidates for the commission to reside in the district they represent, but be elected by a countywide vote.

This will ensure that each commissioner will truly have to represent the interests of all parts of the county. All the commission members should be responsive to every voter in Richmond County, regardless of where that voter may live.

I would like voters to know that the changes I am suggesting are not motivated in any way by race, personalities or party affiliation. It is not a question of "if," but "when" there will be a black mayor of Richmond County.

The census figures show that there is and has been a steady trend of an increase in the minority population; 53 percent of the people in Richmond County are minorities. This means that an African-American mayor is not just possible, but certain. (There is nothing wrong with this.)

I have lived and worked all of my life in Richmond County and have dedicated a substantial portion of my life serving in elected positions. As "your voice in Atlanta," my goal is to serve all of the citizens of Richmond County to the best of my ability.

I LOOK FORWARD to working with Rep. Burmeister and any other elected officials or groups to bring about positive changes in our county government.

(Editor's note: The author is a Democratic member of the Georgia Senate representing Augusta's 23rd senatorial district.)