The way Charlie Bishop sees it, there’s one reason above all others why voters should choose him for mayor of the new Macon-Bibb County consolidated government: experience.
That might seem a presumptuous statement, given that opponents C. Jack Ellis and Robert Reichert are both two-term mayors and that Sam Hart is wrapping up his second term as chairman of the county commission.
But from Bishop’s perspective, he’s the only candidate who has held leadership positions in the city and the county, having served as deputy Macon police chief from 1983-2000 and county commission chairman from 2005-08. Bishop said the new government will be a hybrid of both governments but will more closely resemble Bibb County’s structure.
“Those from the city government will be in for the shock of their lives,” Bishop said. “I’ve worked in both. They have no experience in dealing with constitutional offices. You have to have the constitutional officers work with you to do (budget) cuts. That’s where I have the experience.”
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Because the new government won’t have direct oversight of the sheriff’s office, Bishop, 69, said he would take a hands-off approach to law enforcement operations despite his decades of experience and his belief that crime is the most important issue facing the community.
“The issues are the same, but the problems have gotten worse since my team left office,” said Bishop, who lost the chairmanship to Hart in the 2008 elections. “The priorities have not been right. Crime has got to be No. 1, followed by education. That’s the reason people are leaving Macon-Bibb County. ... I’ll let the sheriff do his job. He’s the one who sets his priorities. Making public safety No. 1 takes money, it takes training. We’ve got to give them the equipment and keep the officers here.”
Former Bibb County Sheriff Jerry Modena has known Bishop since their days as patrolmen -- Modena as a deputy and Bishop as a city officer. Later in their careers, Modena sat across the table from Bishop during sheriff’s office budget negotiations.
Modena said despite built-in friction, the budget hearings never got personal.
“I know my intensity, and I probably appeared more adversarial than I actually was,” Modena said. “But it was never anything ugly. There were times he would question and question in-depth. I found that with his experience as a law enforcement professional, he was willing to work with us.”
Making economic gains
When he was chairman, Bishop touted the county’s strong finances and the role he played bringing industry to the area.
Bishop said “hundreds of millions of dollars” in industry came to Bibb County during his tenure, and he worked with various economic development groups to make sure companies such as Nichiha chose Macon over other cities.
Bishop said Pat Topping, senior vice president for the Macon Economic Development Commission, would bring in prospective companies, and Bishop and others would help sell the community.
“We did a tremendous job with economic development,” Bishop said. “We didn’t worry about the national economy. We heard them talk about regionalization, and we were all about that.”
Topping said Macon-Bibb enjoyed a solid success record in attracting industry during Bishop’s tenure as chairman.
“During those four years, we located and helped (recruit) quite a few companies,” Topping said. “He was part of the team that helped with those projects. When we brought in Nichiha in ’06, he was very gracious to our new Japanese neighbors. In fact, one of the executives’ 80-year-old mother gave Charlie (a haiku) as a special token of appreciation. We’ve been fortunate with the last few county commission chairmen being very helpful, and Charlie was one of them.”
Elmo Richardson, a commissioner during Bishop’s eight years on the board, said the county was able to accomplish a good bit economically during that time, such as attracting new industry to the area.
“Industrial development started to come back (during that time), and we attracted a lot of businesses here,” he said. “He was a big part of that. He was heavily involved in attracting a number of jobs to Bibb County.”
Richardson said Bishop played a major role in setting up the county’s current pension plan, a major improvement over the previous retirement plan.
“(The old plan) hadn’t changed in years and wasn’t even approved by the (Internal Revenue Service),” he said. “Charlie is real knowledgeable about these things and became involved in setting up a pension plan that was approved by the IRS.”
After leaving office, Bishop stayed in the forefront of pension and benefits issues and was a vocal critic of Reichert when the city in recent years discussed changing those programs.
Bishop, who was the police representative on the Macon Fire and Police Employees Retirement System board, accused the city of underfunding the pension plan, citing actuarial reports. Even after Bishop left that board, he still attended meetings and often criticized the process of making decisions about the pension plan.
Bishop stands up for what he thinks is right and can be rigid in his determination, Richardson said.
“He’s pretty aggressive -- that’s one way to describe him,” Richardson said with a chuckle. “One of his weak points is that sometimes he comes on too strong.”
Bishop doesn’t deny that assessment.
“I’m too direct,” he said. “I tell the truth. I tell it like it is. I don’t put on airs -- I’m plain Charlie Bishop. ... I’m not a negative person, but I am realistic. Sometimes you have to look at the big picture, and if it’s a dark picture, you have to let people know.”
Bishop didn’t slow down when his late wife, Carolyn, was battling breast cancer. She died in 2009.
“During that period of time, when his wife was dying of cancer, that had to be a distraction,” Richardson said. “But he didn’t let that interfere with his work.”
Bishop said he would donate a portion of his mayoral salary to various charities, including those that fight breast cancer.
“Too many people are making money off the taxpayers,” he said. “We need to take care of people in need.”
Bishop said government and employees will have to work together to meet the 20 percent budget reduction mandated in the consolidation legislation over the next five years.
“You’re going to need a good finance person in place, and it will take a joint effort. That’s where the expertise comes in. You can’t run roughshod over the (constitutional) offices. Eighty percent of the budget is personnel-related costs. Does that mean you cut out services? I don’t think so.”
Bishop said he thinks some of the budget reduction will come through retirements and some staff taking other jobs.
“When the positions become vacant, you have savings right there,” he said. “But I’m not going to make cuts without the support of the constitutional officers.”
Bishop said he’s experienced in running a government on a lean budget. As chairman, the county paid off early the county jail expansion debt and rolled back property taxes by 2 mills.
“I know how to save money without cutting services,” he said. “I can cut things to the bone with the expertise in the finance office and staff. If cuts can be made, I can make them. ... When I was chairman, I ran it like a business.”
Bishop said it’s important to increase the tax base with more franchise fees and more jobs. He said he’s a supporter of adult education programs that will help keep Macon’s workforce trained and employed.
Having a trained workforce will attract businesses and jobs to Macon, as will reducing crime and eliminating urban blight, he said. Those two issues will need to be solved in tandem.
Bishop said having a quality school system also will attract people to the county. While the Bibb County school board is a separate political entity, Bishop said it’s important for the new government to work alongside it.
In addition, Bishop said members of the new government should go to churches and other community groups to encourage them to maintain programs that work to steer youths away from crime.
Bishop said he hopes the new government helps change the negative perceptions of Macon.
“I want to solve problems,” he said. “I want to encourage people to move back to Macon. ... The major issues are not going to change. It’s that simple. Where I don’t have expertise, I’ll get people who do. I want to improve the quality of life in our community. If we don’t solve these problems, then we won’t be able to solve other problems.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.