ATLANTA -- Three weeks after Bibb County’s state legislative team planned to end an annual exercise in futility and publish a bipartisan Macon-Bibb County government consolidation plan, legislators are hung up on the voting-district maps of the proposed new government.
The delegation has not disclosed any details of their problems agreeing on the maps.
In other major consolidations across the state, however, politicians don’t make the big decisions.
“It was a citizen-driven thing,” says Pat Allen, co-chairman of the 15-member Unification Commission that wrote the charter for the Athens-Clarke County marriage of 1990.
At the time, Allen was a bank president. His co-chairman was a University of Georgia law professor and head of the county National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The other members were businesspeople, retirees, attorneys, educators and others.
“The point was, no elected officials,” Allen said.
Their commission was born out of a broader conversation among “citizen-leader types,” as Allen put it, who asked for city and county permission to get a group together to write an Athens-Clarke County merger proposal.
The Unification Commission held meetings that were open to the public and concentrated in single neighborhoods. They created committees to focus on topics such as the budget, the mayor’s powers and district maps.
And that commission, as a citizen group with help from a state consultant, researched and drew the county commission districts that won legal approval from the federal Department of Justice.
Their state legislators then joined the conversation, but on similar terms as other area residents.
“We took the document to them,” Allen said.
Bibb’s process has been more driven by state legislators. They’ve held public meetings, discussions and commissioned a study from the University of Georgia, but unlike Clarke County’s consolidation authors, they have to represent constituents and think of re-election this year.
None is talking about details of the consolidation proposal except to say that it’s all agreed upon except the maps. Any merger proposal must be approved by Macon and Bibb County voters before it goes into effect.
If previous proposals are a guide, the maps will outline districts of seven to 11 county commissioners in single-member districts.
Athens-Clarke County ended with 10 commissioners: eight from single-member districts and two from superdistricts that each cover half the county.
Allen cautioned, however, that “every community is different” and all he can say is what worked for Clarke County may not work elsewhere.
Clarke County’s 1990 politics and demographics were very different from Bibb’s today. Then, Republicans did not bother to run in most statewide races. U.S. Rep. Doug Barnard did draw a Republican challenger in the 10th District, and walked off with 65 percent of the vote in Clarke County. Countywide, about 70 percent of the population was white, and a majority-white district had already sent Michael Thurmond, a black Democrat, to the state House of Representatives.
Bibb County leans Democrat, but President Barack Obama only picked up 59 percent of the county’s 2008 votes. The county population is majority black, but just barely, at 52 percent.
In Clarke County, many services already were united between Athens and Georgia’s smallest county, including planning and zoning, parks, water, sewer and fire protection. In 1990, more than half the county population lived in Athens.
Bibb County and Macon have limited experience with cooperation. They are now struggling with questions of different pay scales as a few city departments merge with county counterparts, under an agreement separate from any consolidation proposal.
Whitfield County and Dalton are also considering a merge. They’re following a Clarke County-style timeline. Their version of a Unification Commission was created last year. Forty years ago, Columbus and Muscogee County merged under a charter written by a group of leading residents.
By contrast, Augusta-Richmond County’s 1995 merger was written by their state legislators, but it was akin to a shotgun marriage. Augusta was broke and under Georgia law, cities cannot declare bankruptcy. According to an analysis by the University of Georgia: “Promises were apparently made to residents of the unincorporated county to gain support for consolidation that have not been completely fulfilled.”