A mere 90 years after a grand jury urged Macon and Bibb County governments to merge, voters will soon pick a consolidated government’s first leaders.
Among those planning to vote Tuesday is John Wolfenbarger, a retiree who served on a consolidation panel more than a decade ago.
“I think this first administration has their hands full,” said Wolfenbarger, who said Tuesday’s election will be critical to having the right people forge a path to a better government.
Voting will run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. Every registered voter across Bibb County -- there are about 93,000 of them -- can vote for mayor, and current residents of Macon and unincorporated Bibb County will elect a slate of nine county commissioners.
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Only residents of Payne City, which voted against joining a consolidated government, won’t cast ballots for the commissioners, but they can vote for mayor.
Exactly 8,210 people voted early in the elections. Now, only Tuesday voting remains for precincts across the county.
Candidates aren’t identified by political party, and voters of any political persuasion are free to vote for a mayor who is a member of one party and a commissioner who is a member of the other.
The new government won’t be completely new. All nine commission seats and the mayor’s race include people who have run for office before. Some of them have held office before, and more than a dozen of the candidates are serving now with the current Macon or Bibb County governments.
The first candidates elected will serve three-year terms.
Big fights ahead
Tuesday’s votes become even more important because some races are expected to go to a runoff election Oct. 15 with just the top two vote-getters being eligible. All of the commission races are contested, and some of them have as many as four candidates.
The mayor’s race is particularly fragmented. Voters are familiar with all six people on the actual ballot: Commissioner Joe Allen, former Commission Chairman Charlie Bishop, former mayoral candidate David Cousino, former Mayor C. Jack Ellis, commission Chairman Sam Hart and Macon Mayor Robert Reichert. As if six people weren’t enough, there’s a write-in candidate, Anthony Harris, who adorns his campaign signs with an anarchy symbol.
Some of the commission races feature two incumbents and people who have never held office. For example, District 8 features councilmen Virgil Watkins Jr. and Charles Jones and newcomer Regina Davis. In District 2, Paul Bronson is running against councilmen Larry Schlesinger and Henry Ficklin. In District 5, Councilman Frank Tompkins is running against Commissioner Bert Bivins and newcomer Jon Carson.
But some of the most fierce fights are in the races with just two candidates.
One high-profile race pits Councilwoman Elaine Lucas against former school board member Terry Tripp. That District 3 race, for control of a portion of east Macon, had gotten so contentious that the GBI has been called in to investigate claims that Lucas’ husband choked Tripp’s grandson during a Lucas campaign event.
Councilman James Timley was in Superior Court when his District 9 challenger, Al Tillman, was fighting to keep his candidacy. A judge supported a Board of Elections ruling that Tillman is living in a rented District 9 apartment nearly across the street from the District 8 home where his family lives. Tillman has claimed the person who challenged his candidacy, Councilman Henry Gibson, is working with Timley. The district includes Bloomfield Road and Log Cabin Drive.
In just a single race are Bibb County voters certain to pick new blood for office. District 7, centered on the Rutland area, includes newcomers Eric Arnold, Barry Bell and Scotty Shepherd. Only Shepherd has run for office before -- twice, for sheriff -- but he didn’t win.
What lies ahead
Apart from the thousands who cast early votes in the election, the rest of Bibb County voters will need to show up at the polls in their voting precinct. Nearly all voters -- just not those from Payne City -- will cast a vote in their commission race. Everyone will get to vote for mayor.
But even with just two races on each ballot, the election has proven to be far from simple. Election officials say nearly 1,300 people were placed in the wrong commission districts, and 90 of those people cast early votes in the wrong districts. State and local election officials say those problems have been fixed.
Even with incumbents almost certain to be elected, Tuesday’s election and the expected Oct. 15 runoff will pick a new government.
The new government starts Jan. 1, 2014, with leadership from a mayor and nine county commissioners. The Macon Police Department will be folded into the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office. A super majority of six of the nine commissioners is required to pass the budget and hold a meeting. Government departments will merge.
The new government is also supposed to cut its costs by 20 percent over the next five years. The consolidation legislation allows that to be bypassed for “extreme economic circumstances” or “public safety purposes.” By the time the cuts are done, tens of millions of dollars in annual expenses should be eliminated.
With consolidation, Macon-Bibb County will join the ranks of other governments including Augusta and Richmond County, Columbus and Muscogee County and Athens and Clarke County.
A transition team has been working to arrange employee health insurance, create a single set of ordinances and figure out how to make disparate computer systems work together. Some departments will be moving to different quarters in the coming months.
Wolfenbarger, who served on a 1999 consolidation panel, said the changes won’t be easy, but they’ll bring about a new government that should have been created decades ago.
“It’s going to work out better than it was, in my opinion,” he said with a chuckle.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.