Senate bill 'no party' for merger

ATLANTA -- In the wake of Monday's discovery of a Georgia House rule that may threaten the passage of a bill calling for consolidation of Albany and Dougherty County based on a clause that would affect the partisanship of those seeking office, The Herald has examined the bill and city records to see how and why partisanship found its way into the bill.

The rebirth of the current consolidation movement started with the creation of House Bill 800, which was passed by the Georgia House last year but stalled in the Senate, after local officials complained that they had little input into the provisions of the bill that would fundamentally reshape government in Albany and Dougherty County.

H.B. 800, which mirrors a unified charter produced by a charter commission back in 2005, is the framework for the current consolidation bill, S.B. 538.

But there are a few key differences between the two bills that were discussed and recommended for consideration by city commissioners late last year.

Monday, city officials and legislators scrambled to determine whether one of those differences -- the use of nonpartisan elections for the new commission and CEO -- would violate a House Rule that could kill the bill if it leaves the Senate.

That rule states, "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."

General bills, in turn, have to be voted on in either chamber of the General Assembly by crossover day if they are to be considered during that session. Crossover day was last March 26.

S.B. 538 references nonpartisan elections in two meaningful ways: the first reference is found on page 11, Article II, Section 2-102 which discusses the composition and election of the new commission and secondly under Article VI, Section 6-102 in discussing the election of elected officials.

Even in section 6-102, which is the general elections chapter that has the word "non-partisan" in the chapter headline, no where is it mentioned in the body of the chapter that the CEO and the commissioners would be elected through non-partisan elections.

In contrast, H.B. 800, which S.B. 538 replaces, had no mention of partisan races at all, in either the commission races or the CEO's race.

That omission is believed to have been intentional as the proposed charter on which the bill is based does contain the nonpartisan election text.

So why did the partisan/non-partisan issue come up?

In the mad dash to examine H.B. 800 and piece together changes before it had a chance to pass both chambers, elected officials for both the city and the county identified partisan/non-partisan elections as a component that had gone unaddressed in the bill.

It appears that the first reference to partisan versus non-partisan elections in the context of recent consolidation discussions was brought to the city commission table August 4, 2009 by Mayor Willie Adams.

During discussion of consolidation and the timetable to get possible changes to H.B. 800 to the county commission for review, the minutes state that," In reply to Commissioner Langstaff, Mayor Adams stated that it should not take long to review the changes, which will include suggestions from Commissioner Marietta. He mentioned partisan vs. non-partisan elections and the assets of WG&L issue that have not yet been settled."

The commission didn't discuss the issue again until its Sept. 15, 2009 meeting.

According to the official minutes, during discussion at that meeting, commissioners debated back and forth on the merits of partisan versus non-partisan elections, but there was no apparent discussion of striking partisanship language altogether as was done in H.B. 800.

Commissioners ultimately took a 4-3 consensus to make the election for the commissioners and the CEO non-partisan, with Commissioners Bob Langstaff, Dorothy Hubbard, Morris Gurr and Adams in support. Commissioners Tommie Postell, Roger Marietta and Jon Howard moved against.

On the county side, the commission reached consensus on having non-partisan elections but it isn't clear on what the consensus vote was.

The county ultimately voted against continuing the consolidation process by sending changes to the charter to Atlanta.

By comparison, the nonpartisan language that was included in S.B. 538 is verbatim that of the final draft of a proposed charter developed by the Albany-Dougherty Charter Commission in 2005.

The second part of this series examines the role of Water, Gas & Light in Senate Bill 538.