RICHARDSON: A good idea at the time

January 5, 2014 

TOPSAIL ISLAND, N.C. -- Now that Bibb County and Macon are one after almost 100 years of trying, it’s easy to look at other communities and wonder why they do what they do. Here on Topsail Island, there are three distinct communities, Topsail Beach, North Topsail Beach and Surf City. They have three separate police departments and three different tax rates. Topsail Beach has a mayor and five commissioners. Surf City has a mayor and five City Council members. And North Topsail Beach has a mayor and five aldermen, for a total of 18 representatives for less than 3,000 people. All are part of Onslow County, the 12th-largest county in North Carolina, with five commissioners representing 183,000 residents. And we thought we were bad.

I don’t know how the separate governments came into being. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. Topsail Island, according to legend, was a hiding place for pirates off the East Coast, but something that is far from legend made this area famous -- some say nefarious. This was home to Operation Bumblebee. The U.S. Navy tested ramjet missiles here, and some of the bunkers or observation towers are still here.

Whether the three governments on this thin stretch of land was due to accessibility (there are only two ways on and off the island) or some internal strife, I don’t know. But it seems a bit much by today’s standards. Who am I to judge? Some folks thought having a separate Bibb County (1822) and city of Macon (1823) was a good idea. That’s just the way people looked at it at the time. Maybe they thought Bibb County would be home to more incorporated areas than just Payne City and Macon?

You can understand the need for an overarching county government in an area such as Houston County that has Perry, Warner Robins, Centerville and 13 unincorporated areas.

In Georgia, at least, cities and counties have separate powers, but those communities, such as Macon-Bibb, Augusta-Richmond, Athens-Clarke and Columbus-Muscogee have the powers of both. It would seem one government, instead of two, would be more efficient. It would work that way if that’s the way they started out, but they didn’t. It will take a transition period before those cost savings can be realized. Columbus has been reaping the benefits of a consolidated government for the last couple of decades, but it consolidated 43 years ago.

So what can we expect from our new government? Just by nature, the lawmakers will be on their best behaviors. Four members of the new government come from City Council (Virgil Watkins, Elaine Lucas, Ed DeFore, and either Henry Ficklin or Larry Schlesinger, to be decided Jan. 14); Bert Bivins and Gary Bechtel come from county commission ranks; and political newcomers Scotty Shepherd, Al Tillman and Mallory Jones.

The new commission will act and behave as we want it to. If we demand the members act in a collegial manner, they will. If we put up with behavior that is counterproductive to the betterment of this community, that’s what the commission will do. We cannot forget that at their core, they are now politicians, and a politician’s prime directive is to remain in office. That can sometimes lead to poor long-term decision-making. We cannot afford poor decisions. We are already behind the eight ball. Other communities have been eating our lunch for a few decades. But that was in the past. I pledge to reflect not on what we have been but rather what we will become. And I’d like to achieve success within my lifetime. The new year brings fresh hope all around, fresh hope in our community and ourselves.

This new government, as Mayor Robert Reichert said at the investiture, is the beginning of a “new era.” We all have to pledge to help wherever we can.

Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at Tweet@crichard1020.

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