Senate merger bill set to be read

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- State Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Dawson, confirmed Wednesday that a government consolidation bill with changes to original legislation requested by the Albany City Commission has been dropped into the Senate hopper for consideration.

The bill, if passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, would allow Albany and Dougherty County voters to decide in a referendum whether the city and county governments should be merged.

The new bill, Senate Bill 538, would replace House Bill 800, which passed the Georgia House last year after being introduced by State Reps. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, and Carol Fullerton, D-Albany. HB 800, which stalled in the Senate, sparked controversy after local officials said that it was presented without local input.

"HB 800 does not come into play at all here," Sims said Wednesday in a phone interview from the capitol. "This bill is predicated by the information sent up by the (Albany) City Commission because they were the ones that voted to send something up."

Sims said that the bill is scheduled for its first reading Friday morning.

The clerk of the Senate said that the bill was available at the Capitol and will posted online today.

The move follows a contentious discussion by members of the Albany City Commission Tuesday night. Commissioner Tommie Postell chastised his colleagues for supporting what he called a covert attempt to bypass input from county leaders on list of questions that had been sent down from the Senate's Office of Legislative Counsel.

Postell, who was absent from last week's work session during which the board voted to send answers to the questions compiled by city staff, called the commission's actions "clandestined" and said he would have no part in it.

"It sounds like the city is endorsing a clandestined motion," Postell said. "If this goes to the Justice Department, there is going to be one commissioner, Tommie Postell, that will stand against it."

SB 538 will presumably call for a referendum to allow voters to decide whether the governments of Albany and Dougherty County should merge, although the exact contents of the bill won't be posted online until tomorrow.

Because the bill is local legislation, it is not subject to the "crossover day" deadline, which is the final day most bills must pass one house to have a chance at being passed by the other legislative chamber before the session ends.

After discussing the issue, the City Commission voted March 16 in favor of accepting the staff's answers to the questions and to send them, along with a map of the proposed districts, to Atlanta.

Following that vote, City Attorney Nathan Davis sent the responses to the Capitol, where they were incorporated into SB 538.

But that vote, Postell said, shouldn't have happened until the commission first sought the input of the Dougherty County Commission.

In a December meeting, Dougherty County commissioners voted against sending their version of a proposed charter to Atlanta for consideration of a referendum, effectively stopping the process from their end.

Following Postell's remarks, City Commissioner Roger Marietta said that, while he didn't agree with a lot of what Postell had said, he did believe that the county should have had the opportunity to weigh in on the responses to the Senate's questions.

"I think they should have some say in these responses because it's going to affect them, too," Marietta said. "I'm going to move to table this issue until Monday or, I guess, Tuesday, to give them an opportunity to look it over."

That motion, seconded by Postell, failed 2-5 with Marietta and Postell the only supporting votes.

The original motion to ratify the March 16 vote and send the information to Atlanta was offered by Commissioner Jon Howard, seconded by Commissioner Bob Langstaff and passed 5-2, with Postell and Howard opposing.

SB 538 will have to pass the Senate before it can then be considered in the House. Should the bill make it out of both houses, it will then head to the U.S. Department of Justice for review and approval before either being sent back for revisions or heading to the voters for their approval or rejection.

The measure must be approved by more than half of the voters who reside inside the corporate city limits and more than half of the voters who live inside the county in order for it to be adopted.