Legislature to tackle terms

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ATLANTA - When the General Assembly convenes Monday, legislators representing Richmond County plan to tackle local election cycles and funding to hire more public-safety workers.

But the one topic that has been a thorny issue in recent sessions - whether to force a change in the county's governing structure - is not expected to be up for debate for the first time in years.

Rep. Quincy Murphy, D-Augusta, the chairman of the county's legislative delegation, said Mayor Deke Copenhaver and commissioners have not called for structural adjustments. Area legislators last year had planned to introduce a bill granting the mayor veto powers and allowing motions to pass by a simple majority of the commissioners voting.

"Meeting with the commission was just an opportunity for us to have some joint exchanges," Mr. Murphy said. "They did not present us with a new resolution supporting anything different."

Instead, Mr. Murphy said he wants to focus on realigning the elections for county commissioners and marshal posts so they fall on even-numbered years, when voter turnout is higher because of gubernatorial and presidential elections. Local elections across the state fall on odd-numbered years.

Richmond County Elections Director Lynn Bailey recently told the legislators the county could save an average of $137,000 every election cycle by not having to set up polls during odd-numbered years just for commission races.

Although she recommended extending the terms of sitting members for a year to adjust to the new schedule, Mr. Murphy said he would rather have one round of shorter, three-year terms in upcoming elections to match the general elections. After that, the terms would return to four years.

"People will know going in what their term is, and the community will know," he said.

Under the proposal, commission seats in Districts 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 that are up for election later this year would be filled by a person who serves only until 2010, when the next governor will be elected. Seats for Districts 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 that are up for election in 2009 would be decided again in 2012 in a presidential election year.

Legislation dealing with a single city or county will be voted on by the full General Assembly. Legislators generally honor the wishes of the majority of the local delegation, though, meaning that local bills for Augusta would need the support of at least three of the county's five representatives and both senators.

Mr. Murphy also said he wants to discuss ways to change the state rules on the special purpose local option sales tax to allow part of the 1-cent sales tax to be used for public-safety funding.

"I know that we need some additional monies ... for hiring deputies and firemen," he said. "We need to make sure that we have competitive salaries because we're losing deputies."

Incoming Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, who will replace Sue Burmeister as the lone GOP member of the Augusta delegation, said she is reluctant to pitch any local legislation that is not requested by the county government.

"A lot of times, local legislation is requested through the commission and then through us," said Mrs. Sims, a former member of the Augusta Commission. "Mostly what everyone's interested in is having things funded. Almost everything that we heard had to do with funding our roads."

Sen. Ed Tarver, D-Augusta, already has been working on another funding request, sending a letter to Gov. Sonny Perdue and Lt. Gov.-elect Casey Cagle on behalf of the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and Botanical Gardens. Mr. Tarver asked for $300,000 to be added to this year's supplemental budget to help the downtown Augusta facility with upkeep costs for the gardens.

"The funding does not provide anywhere close to the other halls of fame (in the state)," he said.

Mr. Tarver also said he plans to reintroduce a measure from last year to add a fourth State Court judgeship to Richmond County because of increasing caseloads, as long as county officials say they can still handle the budget impact of between $200,000 and $250,000 a year.

The bill never made it out of a committee last year because it called for the initial judge to be elected instead of being appointed by the governor.

Mr. Tarver said he accepted making the change to an appointment to get it moving this year. In another judicial change, Mr. Tarver plans to float the idea of making the elections of local probate judges nonpartisan instead of the political party match-ups they are now.

"Judges are in a position to serve anyone, and they should do justice without regard to party affiliation," he said, pointing out that Superior Court and State Court races are nonpartisan. "A number of other communities have done this through local legislation."

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (404) 681-1701 or vicky.eckenrode@morris.com.

REACH YOUR REPRESENTATIVE

RICHMOND COUNTY DELEGATION


- Sen. Ed Tarver, D-Augusta: (404) 656-0340


- Sen. J.B. Powell, D-Blythe: (404) 463-1314


- Rep. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta: To be assigned


- Rep. Gloria Frazier, D-Gracewood: To be assigned


- Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta: To be assigned


- Rep. Quincy Murphy, D-Augusta: (404) 656-0265


- Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta*: To be assigned


COLUMBIA COUNTY DELEGATION


- Sen. Jim Whitehead, R-Evans: (404) 656-5114


- Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem: (404) 656-5024


- Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans: (404) 463-2247


- Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta*: To be assigned


* Ms. Sims' district includes both Richmond and Columbia counties.

LOCAL BILLS

Here are some of the legislative proposals Richmond County lawmakers plan to consider this year:


MOVING COMMISSION ELECTIONS


Switching county commission and marshal elections from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years to save money and increase voter participation, since that is when gubernatorial and presidential elections are held.


PUBLIC SAFETY FUNDING


Changing the state rules for 1-cent sales tax collections so that part of the money can be used for law enforcement and firefighting funding.


LIBRARY LAND


Asking the state to turn over a piece of property it owns where the county plans to build a library complex.


STATE COURT JUDGE


Adding a fourth judgeship because of increasing caseloads in the county.


PROBATE JUDGE ELECTIONS


Making elections for probate judges nonpartisan instead of requiring candidates to run from each political party as they do now.

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