Senate OKs edited Macon-Bibb merger bill

mlee@macon.comMarch 21, 2012 

ATLANTA -- The state Senate overwhelmingly approved a proposal Tuesday to eliminate Macon City Council and the Bibb County Commission and replace them with a county commission and a merged government in 2014.

The proposal was much the same as a measure that already passed the state House.

The Senate passed the bill 47-1 as part of a package of several bills that affect only one county or city.

Of the few edits, “most were just technical,” said state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon.

The Senate version agreed on all the major points: a nine-member county commission to govern the whole county; a mayor with the power to nominate and fire department heads and key top staff; partisan elections; term limits; and a directive to shrink the unified government’s budget by 20 percent in its first five years of its existence. That percentage would be calculated on Macon’s and Bibb’s yet-unwritten combined draft budgets in two years, but the corresponding figure for this year would be about $31 million.

The Senate version adds the office of coroner, as required by state law. It deletes unnecessary references to courts and a stray reference to a police chief. There was no intention to name a police chief; the county sheriff would run law enforcement. It still creates an Office of Small Business Affairs to assist and help grow small and minority-owned enterprises. But for legal reasons, it’s made an independent agency, not a part of the Macon-Bibb County Economic Development Authority.

The House and Senate made the edits together, said Bibb’s senior legislator, state Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, so she’s expecting no objections when the measure moves back to the House.

There are also tweaks to the draft district map for the nine county commission seats. However, Staton said the changes should still result in the same electoral math as the House map. That one suggested five seats are safe for Democrats, two are safe for the GOP and the final two competitive but leaning Republican.

After the state House and Senate agree to a bill in the coming days, the bill must still get the governor’s formal approval. Then the federal Department of Justice must verify that the maps do not unfairly dilute minority voting power.

Ultimately, voters have the final say. The question will appear on the July 31 general primary ballot. For the merger to happen, a majority of Macon and Bibb voters must approve.

“What we’re going to do is informational,” Randall said. She predicted that legislators will spend time talking to the public and answering questions about the bill, but not working in organized advocacy.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, said he foresees resident-led groups being formed both to promote and to fight the bill. Move Macon Forward, the independent political committee that was not affiliated with but worked for the election of Democrats in 2011, might work in favor of passage, Peake said. His company contributed $5,000 to that committee.

But state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, said there are leery voters in his mostly African-American district. They are concerned that their voices may be drowned out in a governing body that will almost certainly have fewer black members than the eight African-Americans now on Macon City Council.

“Maybe a majority will OK it,” Beverly said. “We’ll see.”

If the measure passes, that triggers formation of a task force to work on merging Macon’s and Bibb’s ordinances. The members will be Randall and Staton plus eight top local officials. The final five people would be named by Bibb’s legislators. Peake said he thinks those appointments would come in August.

Like all laws, the government charter carried in House Bill 1171 can be amended by the Legislature. In fact, some lawmakers are already thinking about it.

“There may be some things we’ll have to come back to next year,” Staton said.

Peake agreed.

“We’re going to miss something” in the very technical 37-page bill. “But it won’t change the overall content: smaller, more efficient government.”

Next year, because of reapportionment, Bibb’s delegation will gain a senator and lose a representative. If all seats stay with the same party, the GOP will get a majority in the Bibb delegations in both the House and Senate. That would give them the ability to amend the charter without Democratic assent.

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