Five Macon-Bibb winners look to future

Telegraph staffSeptember 22, 2013 

While five races for seats in the new Macon-Bibb County consolidated government remain undecided, five city-county commission races are settled.

Now those who know they have won are preparing to take office in three and a half months by building relationships with each other, learning about their new jobs and deciding whether to get involved in the remaining contests that will be resolved in an Oct. 15 runoff.

Chief among those unsettled races is countywide mayor. The voting Sept. 17 set up a rematch between current Macon Mayor Robert Reichert and former Mayor C. Jack Ellis.

“I’m certainly going to do everything I can to make sure the mayor is elected,” said current Bibb County Commissioner Gary Bechtel, winner of the new District 1 seat, referring to Reichert. “I haven’t been asked or volunteered to engage in any of the other races.”

Bechtel said he’s reaching out to those whose races were decided Sept. 17 “so there’s no strangers as we move toward Jan. 1.” He has already worked well with Bert Bivins on the County Commission, and expects to do so with fellow winners Al Tillman and Warren “Scotty” Shepherd, he said. Late last week, he hadn’t reached District 3 commission winner Elaine Lucas, Bechtel said.

“One of the overriding philosophies I’ve heard is, ‘We need to work together,’ ’’ he said.

Bechtel said he stays abreast of the consolidation task force’s actions and wants details on how the new Macon-Bibb commission will work.

But the existing Bibb County Commission has three and a half months still to deal with ongoing projects, such as the new animal shelter, fire stations and recreation, he said.

“There’s a lot of work still to be done in the current position that I hold,” Bechtel said.

Bivins, who won the District 5 seat, said he feels prepared for the new unified government, which is structured more like the current County Commission than the Macon City Council. Bivins noted that current Bibb commissioners tend to agree on most issues, making for less in-fighting than their counterparts on the council.

“(The new commission) needs to be familiar with the ways that county government works,” Bivins said. “We have a fairly efficient manner of doing things. For the most part, we’ve all gotten on well.”

No matter who wins the mayoral runoff between Reichert and Ellis, the new mayor needs to work with the commission rather than be a “virtual dictator,” Bivins said. That kind of leadership, he said, likely would cause splits in the commission.

Bivins said neither Ellis nor Reichert has worked in the county government structure, so it may take time to adjust.

“I hope whoever the new mayor is, he recognizes that the people in the top jobs in the county need to stay,” he said.

Bivins said he doesn’t foresee a split among those who worked in the county government versus those on the council, but he does think it will take some time for everyone to get out of their old mindsets and fully embrace the new government.

Lucas, a Macon councilwoman, said she thinks all of those elected will face a learning curve. She’s spoken with some of those who won their races and said she wants to work with them to come up with priorities for the new government.

“I still have a few more months on council, and I’ll use this time to finish up my term,” Lucas said. “We need to know what the new government is all about. We need to take this time getting to know each other. It’s going to be an adjustment for everybody.”

Lucas said she plans to work over the next few weeks to get more voters out to the polls for the Oct. 15 runoff than the 44 percent that turned out for the special election.

“I’m going to work very, very hard to let people know there’s a runoff,” she said. “There’s going to be forums which should help them make up their minds (for whom to vote).”

Community activist Al Tillman, winner of the District 9 seat, said his efforts at conciliation start now. He’s keeping his distance from the runoffs.

Instead, he plans to read up on major issues and follow the consolidation task force’s work. Tillman also wants to meet with other commissioners, not necessarily to talk about issues but rather to get to know each other better, he said.

“I’ve reached out to everybody that’s won so far,” Tillman said. “I’m convinced that we can put any differences aside.”

He’s established friendly relations with many winners and remaining candidates through years of community involvement, he said.

“My whole motto for years has been ‘Make a friend before you need a friend,’ ’’ Tillman said.

Shepherd, a retired major from the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office who won the District 7 seat, said he has received a call from Reichert, asking for support in the runoff, he said.

“We’re going to meet and talk,” Shepherd said. But whoever wins the disputed races, they’ll all have to learn to work together, he said. Shepherd also is trying to reach all the winners, but he’s known most candidates for some time or met them during the campaign, he said.

“There’s some quality people running,” Shepherd said.

He plans to heed advice from Bivins and Bechtel, and also will look to former City Councilman Theron Ussery and outgoing Councilman Tom Ellington for guidance.

First-time elected officials are required to take a half-week course through the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, said Stacy Jones, associate director of governmental training, education and development at the Carl Vinson Institute. But that’s geared to normal county government election cycles, so the next session is scheduled for December 2014, she said.

“Many of the consolidated governments will choose not only to take that one but also to take the training offered by the Georgia Municipal Association,” Jones said.

Training through GMA is voluntary and will next be held in Athens and Tifton, said Amy Henderson, director of communications and marketing for the GMA.

“We will be offering classes in February and March,” she said.

Even before that, the Carl Vinson Institute and Association County Commissioners of Georgia have a variety of helpful but non-mandatory training scheduled, beginning Sept. 30, Jones said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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