Senate OKs nonpartisan vote for Macon-Bibb offices

mlee@macon.comJanuary 29, 2013 

ATLANTA -- By a nearly party line vote of 34-15, the state Senate has endorsed a Republican proposal that would make Macon-Bibb County consolidated government elections nonpartisan, setting the first vote for July 2013.

The author, state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, told the Senate, “I think this is a common-sense measure for our community.”

Under the proposal, elective offices in the consolidated government that would have the (D) or (R) removed include: mayor, county commissioners, coroner, judges, school board and the Macon and Bibb County Water and Sewerage Authority. The county sheriff, district attorney and a few other offices are exempt. For those, state law doesn’t allow a solo county to set up nonpartisan votes.

Staton said that in town hall meetings even before last year’s approval of consolidation, the feedback from “black, white, Republican, Democrat, we kept hearing (was), ‘We need nonpartisan elections.’”

Partisan elections were written into last year’s legislation for the charter. Without that, it would not have gotten some or all of the Democratic support that smoothed its passage.

But Staton said Tuesday, “We made it very clear this (change) is something we wanted to do as soon as we could.”

Since last year, a redrawing of legislative districts gave Bibb a third senator, a Republican who tipped the balance for nonpartisan elections.

Not every member of the Bibb County legislative delegation agrees with the move, however.

“This eliminates the people’s vote,” said state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, saying that partisan elections are what the people of Macon and Bibb approved in July 2012. Approving the amendment, he said, sends a message back home: “We’re going to change what you voted on.” That, he said, is what makes people in Macon mad.

“I represent the majority of Bibb County,” Lucas said. “I live in Bibb County; the other two senators don’t,” a reference to Staton, who lives in Monroe County, and state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson. Staton represents most of western Bibb plus a few north Macon precincts. Jones’ district includes bits of Macon and Bibb in three north-side precincts. Lucas represents most of the city and some eastern Bibb districts.

Under legislative rules, because all three represent some part of Bibb, all three get an equal say on so-called local legislation, bills that affect only their one county.

Staton said he knows what his roughly 55,000-plus Bibb constituents want, and that’s nonpartisan elections.

“I think many of the people who object to this do so only because of their concerns that it may impact their positions that they currently hold in government,” he said.

Lucas argued that partisan labels are a shorthand to let voters know a candidate’s general philosophy. “I don’t see anything wrong with letting folks know that if they vote for you what your philosophy is.”

Georgia’s other consolidated governments lean toward nonpartisan elections, with a few relatively minor exceptions, such as Columbus-Muscogee’s partisan coroner and Probate Court judge.

The election bills will all be refined to make all office terms begin Jan. 1, 2014, instead of the second Tuesday of January, to make the accounting year match with the calendar year, Staton said.

Staton also filed a separate Senate Bill 28 to formally dissolve Payne City. Lucas opposes it, saying “Payne City voted against consolidated government.”

Nine people voted against consolidation and the dissolution of their 200-resident city within Macon. Seven residents voted for.

The Payne City measure is a battle between Staton and Lucas only, as Jones represents no part of it. Without an ally, Staton will likely have to navigate the Payne City bill through a committee hearing in order to get to a floor vote. Staton said it makes no sense to have a tiny enclave in the consolidated city-county.

But the successful election bills, Senate bills 25 through 27 and 29 through 32, now move to the state House.

“This is the first step,” said an enthusiastic state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, minutes after the Senate vote.

If all three Republicans in the five-member Bibb House delegation support the bill, it would get quick approval and head to the governor’s desk.

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