Macon-Bibb County government gets jump on issues

jgaines@macon.comDecember 20, 2013 

Macon-Bibb County commissioners can’t make legally binding decisions until they’re sworn in Dec. 31, but that doesn’t stop them from hashing out issues in advance.

For more than four hours Friday, Mayor-elect Robert Reichert and all new commissioners -- including both contenders for the still-undecided District 2 seat, Henry Ficklin and Larry Schlesinger -- worked through the issues they’ll face at their first formal meeting.

After an 11 a.m. swearing-in on the last day of the year, commissioners will hold a short business meeting when they expect to adopt a unified code of ordinances, appoint a handful of high-ranking staff members, adopt a budget for the last six months of the fiscal year, accept new personnel and financial policies, and vote on a few related matters. Reichert has said he hopes those votes will be swift and unanimous, so Friday’s meeting was set up to work out any disagreements.

The new government’s basic function is a combination of legislative mandate, current city and county methods, and procedures recommended by various consultants and the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. The essential newness of the government should be kept in mind when debating its merits, Reichert said.

“The one thing none of us ought to say is ‘That’s not the way we’ve done it before,’” he said.

Meetings and committees

Commissioners agreed to keep their full meetings at 6 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of each month, setting the first regular meeting for Jan. 7.

But there were many opinions on how to set up committees and when those should meet. Suggestions ranged from three committees to nine, but it was generally agreed that committees should have five members.

Those choices will ultimately be up to a three-member Committee on Committees, Reichert said -- but that raised another problem, since the Committee on Committees structure assumes there will be a mayor pro tempore to hold one of those three seats.

Commissioners are reluctant to choose one, since two possible contenders -- Ficklin and Schlesinger -- won’t have their race decided until sometime in January.

Commissioner-elect Mallory Jones suggested choosing a mayor pro tem at the Jan. 21 regular meeting, by which time he said the Ficklin-Schlesinger outcome should be known.

Commissioner Elaine Lucas said she hoped seniority in public office would be considered a strong qualification for the job. She could support Commissioner Ed DeFore -- the longest-serving member of Macon City Council -- or others with long tenure, she said.

“Certainly I should be considered for pro tem,” said Lucas, a 25-year council member.

Hiring and firing

Commissioner Scotty Shepherd asked if commissioners will have a say in the continued employment of upper-level Macon-Bibb staff, since it takes a majority vote to approve the hiring of such people.

“I have (had) a number of citizens call me about the mayor’s power of appointing and dismissing employees,” Shepherd said.

Reichert assured him that he’d work with commissioners as a team on firings of any upper-level staff. But Mathis noted that department heads fired by the mayor wouldn’t have any appeal to commissioners.

Lucas expressed concern that employees might be fired for wearing “the wrong color dress,” and urged adding some appeal process.

She said she wasn’t directing that at Reichert, but that arbitrariness might be a problem with future mayors.

Interim City Attorney Judd Drake said commissioners could pass a resolution asking for creation of an appeal, but it would have to be added to the charter by the General Assembly.

Regarding some of those top jobs, Reichert said the positions of county manager, clerk of commission, county attorney, chief finance officer, fire chief and Municipal Court judge are all posted for internal applicants until Dec. 23.

“We will look at any applications or interest that have come in by the 23rd,” he said.

Reichert said he plans to send commissioners his recommendations for those jobs between Dec. 25 and Dec. 31.

Ficklin and Shepherd said rumors are already flying that those choices have been made.

Reichert said that’s the impression he wants to avoid. If commissioners dislike his picks, they can vote no; and if one is rejected, an interim candidate can be appointed until consensus is reached, Reichert said.

Legislation and comments

Some important procedures will be different from the way either the city or county do things now. Drake said the new rules don’t require every item up for approval to go through the full committee-review process. Routine, noncontroversial items will be placed on a consent agenda, he said.

Those items can all be approved in one vote, but any commissioner can pull an item from the consent agenda for full discussion, said Laura Mathis, deputy director of the Middle Georgia Regional Commission.

A long exchange tackled the public-comment period that now opens Macon City Council meetings. Few members of the public address Bibb County commissioners, but Reichert noted that council meetings attract a few “regulars” who give meandering speeches twice a month. Proposals to limit public comments, or move them to the end of meetings, could be a “real fireball,” he said.

Commissioners liked the idea of letting people sign up to speak on specific agenda items at the start of the meeting, or when those items come up for a vote; but that “general” comments should wait for the end of regular business.

Comfort and security

The current City Council chamber needs some work before it hosts commissioners, said Chris Floore, city Public Affairs director. It’s getting some basic renovation and cleaning now, and there will only be a dozen seats on the dais instead of 17, he said.

More upgrades are expected, especially a new sound system and video capability, but those choices will be up to commissioners, said Dale Walker, the city’s interim chief administrative officer.

From there Reichert said greater security planning may be needed, as police move out of City Hall’s first floor. Bibb County commissioners already are used to higher security at the courthouse, he said.

Commissioners and employees may need electronic cards for entry, with a metal detector at the main entrance for the general public, Reichert said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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