Merger bill headed for possible showdown

ALBANY, Ga. -- As the bill calling for a public vote to unify the governments of Albany and Dougherty County moves through the Senate, a House rule may spell disaster for efforts to get the measure to voters by November.

Senate Bill 538 was introduced in the Senate Friday and was read and referred to Senate Local and State Government Operations, or SLGO, Committee for consideration, senate clerk officials say.

If the bill is signed off on by State Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Dawson, it likely will pass through the committee and head out onto the Senate floor for a vote.

The bill would then cross the capitol into the Georgia House where the House Committee on Intragovernmental Coordination would take it up before deciding whether it should continue to the full House for a vote.

But a House rule that defines "local" and "general" legislation may derail efforts to get the bill to voters.

According to House officials, House Rule 50 states that "any bill or resolution relating to or affecting the political partisanship of any elected office... shall not be deemed to be a local or special bill or resolution but shall be treated as a general bill or resolution."

While it may sound benign, the designation from local to general legislation could kill the bill because by rule, general legislation must be approved and voted on in one of the two legislative bodies by crossover day in order to be considered for passage into law.

Since crossover day was Friday, the bill -- if designated as general legislation -- would die and force local legislators to bring it again at the start of the 2011 session.

The wording in the bill that would make House Rule 50 apply -- a statement in section 2-102 and again in Article 6 of the proposed charter that states that the commission would be elected through "non-partisan elections." This wording was agreed to by a consensus of city commissioners on September 15, 2009.

Minutes of that meeting show that Commissioners Dorothy Hubbard, Morris Gurr, and Bob Langstaff supported non-partisan elections while Commissioners Jon Howard, Roger Marietta and Tommie Postell were against. Mayor Willie Adams only voiced his support when a stipulation was added that would require the CEO to be elected on a presidential election cycle.

Adams, who was out of town Monday attending a meeting of municipal utility officials in Greensboro, said that it was the first time he had heard of the snag and that he was unprepared to comment.

He did say, however, that he would be contacting Sims and others to research their options.

Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, who heads the House Committee on Intragovernmental Coordination -- the committee that will get the bill if it passes the Senate and determine if Rule 50 does apply -- said that the quick fix is for the language to be struck on the senate side.

"Bills get amended in committee all the time," Rynders said. "It's pretty routine...the easiest way to ensure that it is done would be to handle it in the Senate before it comes to the House."

Sims said in a phone call from Atlanta late Monday afternoon that she had been made aware of the concerns around House Rule 50 and had asked legal counsel and others to examine the issue and work up some options.

"I have legal counsel working on that to see how to address that particular issue," Sims said. "It was something I never knew of...the process was typically to always get information from local officials, get it to legislative counsel and then it was effectively over."

Sims defended herself from bloggers who had accused her of being a part of some conspiracy to derail then entire referendum effort by delaying the process and ultimately keeping Dougherty citizens from voting on the matter.

"I am not prepared nor have I ever been willing to stand in the way of the people's right to vote," Sims said. "If the people support this issue or of they don't support it, it's their right to voice that at the polls."

The city is already asking for a correction to be made to what they have called a "misinterpretation" of an e-mail between City Attorney Nathan Davis and the office of Legislative Counsel.

That error would have allowed for the new commissioners to get a $15,000 pay raise and the CEO a $25,000 pay raise upon completion of mandated state certification.

An e-mail dated March 16, provided to the Herald between Davis and Jimmy McDonald in the legislative counsel's office, states: "Attached, please find our responses to your February 15, 2010 letter to Senator Freddie Sims. Additionally, at Section 2-104 (a) please insert $15,000 and at Section 3-103 (a) please insert $25,000."

Assistant City Manager Wes Smith said Monday that city officials had been in talks to get the pay issue straightened out.