State boards lack Augusta representation

Dana Bedden is an educated man, but the Richmond County school superintendent has trouble coming up with the answer to a certain question.

When asked who the representatives on the state Board of Education are for this area, he said he wasn't sure of their names. Why the uncertainty?

"I've never had any contact," Dr. Bedden said. "Zero. Not one iota."

During the two years he's been superintendent, Dr. Bedden said the representatives for Richmond County in the 10th and 12th congressional districts -- Brian K. Burdette and Allen C. Rice, respectively -- have yet to visit Richmond County to meet him or call to ask about issues facing the 11th largest of the state's 180 school systems.

Both men are appointees of Gov. Sonny Perdue. That neither is from the Augusta area -- Mr. Burdette lives in Greensboro; Mr. Rice in Vidalia -- shouldn't come as a surprise.

Since Mr. Perdue swept into office on the Republican tidal wave that changed the state from blue to red in 2002, he has yet to appoint someone from the Augusta area to the board that helps craft education policy and practices for Georgia. The same can be said for the equally powerful Board of Regents, whose last member from the Augusta area was Timothy Shelnut who left in 2007, a Roy Barnes appointee. Mr. Shelnut's departure marked the first time in 30 years the Augusta area hadn't been represented on the Board of Regents.

Based on analysis by The Augusta Chronicle of the 1,641 appointments Mr. Perdue has made to state boards in his six-plus years in office as of June, Georgia's second largest metro area and county -- Richmond -- seem to be getting short-changed.

Augusta ranks seventh in terms of appointments per capita among the state's 15 metro areas. Smaller metro areas Warner Robins, Macon and Athens hold the top three spots. Atlanta, the state's largest metro area, was 12th on the list but its total number of appointments is more than the other 14 combined.

Augusta had 70 total appointments, second only to Atlanta. With 772 appointees, Atlanta is not likely to suffer any shortage of political influence although it technically is underrepresented, noted a political analyst.

"My guess is that it's doing quite well," said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist.

Bert Brantley, spokesman for Mr. Perdue, said there is no intent to include or exclude any part of the state. He said the governor's office had never looked at the appointments' geographic breakdown until The Chronicle brought it to their attention.

"You're rolling up 1,600 decisions and looking for trends, but really it's individual decisions," Mr. Brantley said. Many reasons could account for disparities, he said, and offered an explanation for the disproportionate number from Warner Robins.

"I think it can be directly attributable to people he has served with before, people he knows and people who feel comfortable making recommendations," Mr. Brantley said.

The appointment process is straightforward, he said. The governor's executive appointments office receives recommendations, background checks are conducted and Mr. Perdue meets with staff members every couple of weeks to decide appointments.

Representation on these boards gives those communities a voice in how decisions are made on the state level, some that oftentimes directly affect a specific community, say those familiar with the ways of Georgia politics. The lack of representation can have the opposite effect, and some say that has come back to bite Augusta.

Bill Kulhke, a former Augusta Commission member who is chairman of the Department of Transportation board, whose appointees are not made by the governor, believes not having someone from the metro area on the Regents could have contributed to that group's approval of expanding the Medical College of Georgia to Athens. The move has been criticized as a prelude to possibly moving the entire campus out of Augusta.

Mr. Perdue backed the Athens expansion, saying the state has outgrown MCG's ability to train doctors in Augusta.

"If we'd had some strong representation on the Board of Regents that may not have happened," Mr. Kulhke said. "I think the more representation that Augusta has, the more visibility it has involved in state government, it certainly is a positive thing for Richmond County. On the other hand, the less participation we have, it's a negative thing for us."

Mr. Brantley said the decision to expand to Athens wouldn't have been any different if an Augusta resident was on the Regents. He said the governor expects his appointees to represent the state, not their home turf.

"I don't buy it that someone from Sandersville can't know the issues of Augusta," Mr. Brantley said, referring to Benjamin Tarbutton III, who represents the 12th District that encompasses part of Richmond County. However, Mr. Tarbutton has visited Augusta State University only twice in his three years on the board as of July.

Richmond County's other representative on the Board of Regents is Athens-based William NeSmith Jr. of the 10th District.

That Richmond County is one of the largest remaining Democratic strongholds in the state also doesn't work to gain favor with the governor, said Dr. Bullock. In the past two gubernatorial elections, Richmond County voted against Mr. Perdue.

Dr. Bullock also said Warner Robins and Macon likely have more appointments per capita than the other metro areas because that is Mr. Perdue's home territory. The governor hails from Houston County, which borders Bibb County. Warner Robins and Macon are in Houston and Bibb counties, respectively.

Mr. Brantley said politics and geography don't play a role in the governor's decisions on appointees. Mr. Brantley pointed out, that his boss has many "friends" in Augusta, naming Mayor Deke Copenhaver and state Rep. Ben Harbin as two of them. Mr. Harbin, a Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is from Columbia County.

Dr. Bullock said politicians typically tap people of their own party and their home county to these boards . There's no problem with that, he said, as long as the appointees are competent.

"People tend to have strong loyalty to the places they are from," Dr. Bullock said. "If all things are equal, a political appointee might try to lure a business to his or her hometown."

Mr. Kulhke, a Republican, has insight into that possibility. He served for 16 years on the state Industry, Trade and Tourism Board, now the Economic Development Board, which had close contact with companies considering locating to Georgia. Though he represented other counties besides Richmond on the board, being from Augusta provided a certain sensitivity for the needs of his city.

"You'd have all different types of people who would be taking a look at the state of Georgia and what you basically wanted was to make sure you got somebody to take a look at Augusta," Mr. Kulhke said. "So, economic development, the enticement of industry coming into your area was a very competitive type thing, but if you didn't get a shot at it, you didn't have a chance. You can use that board member to make sure they got in touch with the right people."

The Augusta area does have one person on the Economic Development Board with local ties: longtime banker and businessman H. M. "Monty" Osteen, who is an at-large member.

The governor has made appointments to more than 180 different boards, but some are created more equal than others. Dr. Bullock puts the state school board and Regents at the top of his list because of their impact on education.

The Board of Education is responsible for a $9.5 billion budget, and the Board of Regents handles a budget of $6 billion. The regents also approve each college and university's budget. Members of both boards serve seven-year terms.

The last person with Augusta ties to sit on the state education board was Roscoe Williams, who relinquished his 10th congressional district seat in 2003 when he was not reappointed by Mr. Perdue. That board, like some others, are portioned by congressional districts.

Dr. Williams, a longtime educator and recently retired administrator and executive assistant to the president at Paine College, said he spent five minutes alone with the governor in his office stating his educational philosophy, but was eventually replaced for James Franklin from Gordon County, which overwhelmingly supported Mr. Perdue during the 2002 election.

Since taking office in 2003, Mr. Perdue has replaced the 10th and 12th district representatives five times.

None have been residents of the four-county Augusta metro area of Richmond, Burke, Columbia and McDuffie counties.

"The education of our kids is just too critical and we face too many other challenges on that front for them to get caught up in the political," Dr. Williams said. "I think many times that's how boards are formed, and I say that maybe even being guilty of being placed on the board myself because I was thought to be Democratic. I don't know, but I know that that happens all too often."

The importance of the state school board was illustrated recently when it voted to allow teacher furloughs during a special meeting shortly after Mr. Perdue recommended school systems consider it as an option. All 12 school board members were appointed by Mr. Perdue. One was a re-appointment from Mr. Barnes. One position is vacant.

Dr. Williams said one of the most important aspects of being on one of these boards is that a member can oftentimes advocate for policy that directly impacts an issue important to that person's community.

For instance, Dr. Williams said he has always been keenly aware of the major role parents play in a child's education. That's why he pushed the board for more after-school programs in Georgia, knowing that they would significantly benefit a county, such as Augusta, that has a large number of single-parent homes.

"If you'd asked me this question 35 years ago, I would have told you that it wasn't so much that Augusta demographics have such a specific need as to make (after-school programs) desirable, but I would have told you that it was extremely important," Dr. Williams said. "But I'll tell you today that it's more desirable to have that in place because the natural flow of parental support now is nothing like it was 30 years ago."

Included in that wistfulness would be the political influence once enjoyed by Richmond County. Gone, at least temporarily, are the major players from Augusta who wielded enormous power in state politics -- people such as former Speaker Pro Tem Jack Connell or Senate majority leaders Tom Allgood and Charles Walker, all Democrats.

State Rep. Quincy Murphy, chairman of the county's legislative delegation, has the most seniority among the group, entering his seventh year in office. He acknowledges that Augusta politicians don't have the influence in state government they once had. But politics are cyclical, he said, and he expects this cycle to eventually end.

"The numbers are there in terms of those persons (Mr. Perdue) has appointed, and the numbers are there in terms of the kind of support he has received from Augusta-Richmond County," Mr. Murphy said.

"But, this is not the first time this kind of situation has happened throughout the state. It's just our turn."

Reach Mike Wynn at (706) 724-0851.

Click here to see a database of all 1,641 appointments made by Gov. Sonny Perdue.

A look at some prominent Augustans' take on the top state boards to serve on (number in parentheses is total representatives from Richmond, Columbia, Burke or McDuffie counties):

BILL KULHKE

- Board of Regents (0)

- Board of Education (0)

- Department of Transportation* (1 -- Mr. Kulhke, selected 2004)

- Economic Development (1 -- H. M. "Monty" Osteen Jr., Augusta, appointed 2006)

- Department of Natural Resources (0)

QUINCY MURPHY

- Board of Regents (0)

- Board of Education (0)

- Economic Development (1 -- Mr. Osteen)

- Ports Authority (1 -- Don Cheeks, Augusta, appointed 2006)

- Department of Corrections: (1 -- James L. Whitehead Sr., Evans, appointed 2007)

ROSCOE WILLIAMS

- Board of Education (0)

- Board of Regents of the University System of Ga. (0)

- Board of Commissioners, Commission on Equal Opportunity (1 -- William H. Jones Jr., Martinez, appointed 2006)

- Board of Commissioners of the Georgia Student Finance Commission (0)

*The DOT board is not selected by the governor. Board members are elected by a majority of a General Assembly caucus from each of Georgia's 13 congressional districts.

RankMetro areaAppointeesPopulation
1Warner Robins57131,016
2Macon66229,846
3Athens51187,405
4Rome2695,618
5Brunswick23101,792
6Albany35164,069
7Augusta70350,777
8Columbus44232,573
9Valdosta24130,170
10Gainesville32180,175
11Savannah58329,329
12Atlanta7725,278,904
13Dalton32180,175
14Chattanooga, Tenn.8142,983*
15Hinesville371,803

* Georgia population within the Chattanooga metro area

Sources: Governor's office, University of Georgia