Unified law enforcement is one of the prime considerations of a proposed consolidated Albany/Dougherty County government. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — Clinton Johnson was a political newcomer when he ran for office in 2011, so his two years of service make him the least experienced member of the Dougherty County Commission. During his time in office, the concept of consolidating the Albany and Dougherty County governments has rarely been discussed.
But with long-time commissioner and board chairman Jeff Sinyard set to step down at the end of the year, consolidation has wiggled its way back into the conversation during discussions of the future of the county.
Like District 1 Commissioner Lamar Hudgins, Sinyard is not so much a proponent of consolidation as he is in favor of allowing the citizens of the county to determine how they are governed.
District 2 Commissioner John Hayes and as-of-Friday former District 5 Commissioner Gloria Gaines, who stepped down from her seat to challenge for the commission chairmanship being vacated by Sinyard, say they have voted against moving a county charter that would allow for a referendum to determine if the voters of the city and county are in favor of a unified government forward because of constituent concerns about the charter.
Meanwhile, on the extremes of the issue are District 6 Commissioner Jack Stone, who bluntly said, “There’s no way in hell I would ever vote for consolidation,” and District 4’s Ewell Lyle, who sees the joining of the city and county as “the only ultimate solution to our budget problems.”
That leaves Johnson.
“I will say I agree with Commissioner Hudgins on one key point: I’m in favor of the people in the county having a say in how they’re governed,” the District 3 commissioner said. “But before I’d vote to move forward with the consolidation process, I would want to be much more informed than I am now. I think before we considered such action, we’d need to have a significant education process for the community.
“At this point, I’m not interested in getting into a huge debate about consolidation. There are so many questions, like what’s going to happen with the Water, Gas & Light Commission? But if it arises, I would certainly talk with my constituents to get a better handle on their feelings.”
The call for consolidation of the Albany and Dougherty County governments arose just after the turn of the century, and a 21-member Charter Commission was formed to draw up a proposal under which the Albany and Dougherty County commissions would be discarded in favor of a single, unified government.
An exhaustive year-plus study was conducted by the committee, and it sent forth a plan for consolidation to both commissions. After years of discussion, the city and county governments voted on the charter.
“It was agreed that we would send a consolidation request to the state Legislature if both the city and county approved a charter,” Sinyard said. “The city passed their charter, but the county didn’t. The city could actually have sent their charter to the Legislature and asked that it be approved and a referendum called so that voters could determine if they wanted a consolidated government. But since the county doesn’t have an approved charter, the issue kind of fell off the radar.
“There are people who assumed since the county rejected a charter twice, the issue was dead. But in my judgment this issue never dies. It will continue to be an option that the community has a right to look at. I think the community deserves that opportunity.”
Consolidation burst back onto the radar in 2011 when state Rep. Ed Rynders offered a bill in the House that would have unified the Albany and Dougherty County governments. The measure passed the House, but died in the Senate. State Sen. Freddie Powell Sims said she planned to prepare a consolidation meaure for the Senate in 2012, but that action never materialized.
Hudgins points out that while he has voted twice to move the county consolidation charter forward, he at no time has said he is a consolidation supporter.
“I want to make that clear,” the District 1 commissioner said. “I’ve never stated that I am in favor of consolidation. It’s not my place to say what we need to do. What I’ve always said, and what I continue to say, is that we live in America, and in America the people should have the right to say what kind of government they want.
“Some have said we could save a lot of money with one unified government, but the key to savings always depends on decisions made by the government. How can anyone say we’d save ‘x’ million dollars (with a consolidated government) when no one knows what the new government would be dealing with? If a person like Richard Crowdis, who watches every penny, were in charge, yes, you’d most likely save money. If someone less frugal were in charge, then it’s less likely.”
Gaines said that while she agrees with the principle of allowing the citizens to decide what form of government they want, she feels she’s been able to accomplish that in District 5 through various community meetings.
“I’ve held a number of meetings, one of them that drew more than 100 concerned citizens, and at each one I’ve asked for their input on whether they want the consolidation issue to go to a vote,” the former District 5 commissioner said. “I’ve given them my phone number and asked them to call me about it, to talk with me personally, and not one person has ever called. My feeling is that there is not much interest.
“One of my voters expressed to me what I think is the general feeling in the district: ‘Some folks are saying we citizens should have a say in this matter. We are having a say: We’re not interested in voting on consolidation.’”
But Gaines said she would feel obligated to widen the dialog if elected chair of the commission.
“If I were serving as the commission chair (which is a countywide position), I would owe it to the citizens to have another look,” she said. “I would certainly seek input from throughout the community to try and determine the overall feeling. There are always two sides to every coin, but I just have a feeling that if this were such a great thing, there would be a groundswell to consolidate city and county governments throughout the state.”
Stone, too, said his constituents have made it abundantly clear that they do not want a consolidated government.
“The people I represent simply do not want this on a ballot,” the District 6 commissioner said. “The feedback I get from them is that it would not be a fair process. The matter would be decided by the people in the city because there are three times more people living in the city than in the county. I believe if things were different, they might feel different about it.
“I’ve not had one person in my district tell me they were in favor of consolidation. They say if it was fair, they’d go for it in a New York minute, and I would, too. But they don’t want the people downtown determining their destiny.”
Lyle said the concept of a unified city/county government is a fiscal matter as far as he is concerned. He notes that since he’s been on the commission, he’s conducted extensive research on other governments that have gone through the consolidation process.
“There are two very important things that have convinced me that consolidation is something we need in our community,” the District 4 commissioner said. “The first, and primary, concern is budgetary. We have so much duplication of services in the city and county, and even though we do have a series of intergovernmental agreements to determine what services are provided by what government, we spend so much money going through that whole process.
“I also believe our taxpayers are where the rubber meets the road. The people who are paying these high taxes in the county — and I’m one of them — ought to have an opportunity to have input on how their government is organized. I’ve never heard anybody say they’re against consolidation because it’s going to cost us more money. We need to just put our cards on the table and let the people decide.”
While many in the community assume the county’s failure to move consolidation forward all but killed the issue, there are rumblings that it could have an impact on this year’s local elections. One of Republican Lyle’s Democratic opponents, Pat Garner, has chided the incumbent for his stand on consolidation, and Anthony Jones, who is challenging Stone, has said he wants the people of District 6 to have a clear say in the matter.
“There are over 16,000 folks in District 6 and about 7,500 registered voters,” Jones said. “It’s not my call to determine what they want. I am running to be a servant of the people, so I would want to hold listening sessions to find out what the people want before I bring anything to the table.”
Garner said of Lyle, “All I hear from the incumbent is ‘consolidation, consolidation, consolidation.’ That Darwinistic approach is not the best way to govern Albany.”
Sinyard told The Herald in a recent conversation that he would not mind seeing the county take another look at consolidation before he leaves office.
“I honestly don’t know where the majority of our people are with consolidation right now,” the commission chairman said. “But my vote is always going to be to give the people an opportunity to decide if they want a consolidated government.
“In my mind, as long as the community is trying to figure the best way to deliver services, consolidation is an option.”