A 1961 attempt to unify the governments of Columbus and Muscogee County didnt go over very well.
Consolidation was denounced as a communist conspiracy and a metro-Castro government, according to a retrospective report on the now-merged governments website.
But in the ensuing decade, business and political leaders worked out their differences on the issue. And they presented a united front to get consolidation passed in 1970 by a four-to-one margin, though voter turnout among the countys 170,000 residents was very low.
The result was the first merged government in Georgia, now functioning for more than 40 years -- and Councilman C.E. Red McDaniel said theres no going back.
I dont know of anybody whod want to go back to the city-county form of government rather than the consolidated form of government that weve got, he said. Thats the reason Columbus has been so successful.
McDaniel, a 1955 graduate of Mercer University, was a Columbus councilman before being elected to the new consolidated council. After an eight-year hiatus he was re-elected in 1982, and has served since then for a total of 36 years in office.
Some of the issues facing Columbus and Muscogee County in 1970 are the same as those local voters are considering now, McDaniel said. In fact, he has urged Macon and Bibb officials to merge for years.
I was wondering when they were going to do that, because thats what they need to do, McDaniel said.
Incoming businesses prefer to deal with one government, not two, which may be at odds, he said. He attributes much of Columbus attraction of a huge new shopping complex, $100 million museum at Fort Benning, and revitalized downtown with a performing arts center, civic center and more than 100 restaurants to the welcoming environment provided by a coherent government.
Columbus City Manager Isaiah Hugley provided a briefing he put together on the consolidation process, and its rationale mirrors much of the local discussion: financial efficiency, the elimination of the duplication of services and double taxation, and centralized responsibility for all governmental issues.
Like the plan up for a vote July 31 in Macon and Bibb County, the Columbus-Muscogee County merger included the promise that the former governments debts would be paid only by the former jurisdictions, Hugley said.
Some of the arguments against consolidation were the same, too: fear of higher taxes, incumbent elected officials angling to stay in office and allegations of racial unfairness.
In Columbus and Muscogee County, though, those fears didnt come to pass, according to McDaniel and the citys online report.
We didnt have any real problems. It went over real smooth, McDaniel said. Taxes declined, though that was in part due to a legislated tax freeze on houses, in effect as long as current residents didnt move or make any major improvements, he said.
The combined budget also dropped in the aftermath, McDaniel said, though he doesnt recall by how much.
Though the racial balance of Columbus-Muscogee County was different from the current Macon-Bibb County balance of a city thats 68 percent black with an unincorporated area thats 29 percent black -- according to U.S. Census Bureau figures -- worries about diminishing black representation also played a role in the Columbus-Muscogee consolidation debate. In the end, though, that wasnt a major problem even 40 years ago.
No (new council) district had a black majority, but the one with the largest black population elected a black councilman, the city study said. And one of the six at-large seats was won by a black, who received the largest vote of all candidates.
McDaniel and the citys analysis attribute much of the credit for Columbus-Muscogee Countys successful merger to how the process was handled, and that does differ considerably from the current Macon-Bibb County attempt.
In many ways Columbus and Muscogee County were in an ideal situation for consolidation in 1970, McDaniel said. Fort Benning takes up a quarter of the 221-square-mile county, and a major 1969 annexation left only a few thousand non-military people in the unincorporated area.
We had more people in the city than lived in the county, he said.
Macon, by contrast, covers only about one-fifth of Bibb Countys 255 square miles, and about 60 percent of the countys 156,000 people live within city limits.
Leaders in Columbus learned from the 1961 rejection, and carefully lined up support for a new try. In 1968, voters approved a commission to write a new charter. The Macon-Bibb plan was written by the local legislative delegation.
The Columbus-Muscogee charter commission worked in full public view, holding public hearings that defused much opposition through full discussion, and accepting several changes to the early draft, according to the city study.
Elected officials remaining opposition evaporated when three incumbents said they wouldnt run again, potentially leaving a spot on the new 10-member council for every remaining city and county official.
It took that to bring unanimous support from politicians who were willing to fight to keep their jobs in a new government, McDaniel said.
If you dont have that, its going to be a tough road, he said.
Several members of Macons and Bibb Countys governing bodies are opposed to the current consolidation plan.
The May 1970 referendum was followed by a November 1970 special election, and the new 10-member council plus a mayor took over Jan. 1, 1971.
That means there were only six months to prepare for the transition, Hugley said. The Macon-Bibb proposal wouldnt produce unification until the start of 2014. But in Columbus, there was little evidence of change in the functions of government until 1972, despite the formal merger, the city study found.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.