Three people want to be the next mayor of Milledgeville, which has taken plenty of hits lately.
In February, a special investigator recommended that the City Council boot or reprimand the city manager, saying he improperly took city business away from a bank that had criticized the council. The same month, Mayor Richard Bentley resigned, citing health and business issues. Tuesday’s special election will fill the remaining two and a half years of his term.
In April, Bentley was arrested for insurance fraud. The state also accused the council of conducting business in secret.
In June, the CEO of the Oconee Regional Medical Center resigned, carrying away $350,000 in exchange for agreeing not to make any legal claims against the hospital. And two of the area’s biggest employers, Georgia Power’s Plant Branch and Central State Hospital, have been winding down operations for years.
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But Melba Burrell, Floyd Griffin Jr. or Gary Thrower would have only a few months as mayor to make any mark on Milledgeville before residents in the city and Baldwin County go to the polls to decide if the governments should merge.
All three candidates say they oppose consolidation.
The plan divides black voting strength, the candidates said. Consolidation would unite all of Baldwin County under a mayor and vice mayor elected at large plus a five-member county commission. (The U.S. Department of Justice has some power to stop plans that greatly dilute black voting strength, but they have not objected to the consolidation plan.)
The candidates also criticize the lack of a financial analysis of consolidation.
But while they wait for the outcome of that vote later this fall, they would generally emphasize jobs and the city’s reputation while in office.
Burrell has spent the past year or so at public meetings hammering the city on ethics -- or rather -- what she considers to be lapses in ethics.
“I would never have a meeting that would not comply with the open meetings law,” she said. The city has a good ethics policy, but officials need to follow it, she said.
She said she suspects a review would uncover some conflicts of interest.
“We do need to vet carefully any city official and see that they’re in compliance,” Burrell said.
She also noted that that Georgia’s Chamber of Commerce has said it is troubled by the allegations that the city would retaliate against a bank. Burrell wants the city to unequivocally renounce retaliation.
She also would push for more funding for economic development, specifically the services of professionals who recruit companies to set up businesses in Milledgeville.
As selling points, she said, the city has plenty of water and plenty of bright young people coming through its colleges. Its problems include a lack of industrial rail service and the ethics black eye.
She also said the Oconee Regional Medical Center is so important that the city needs to help make sure it stays open as a full-service hospital, but one with straightened-up, transparent finances.
Burrell wants to step up parking enforcement and collect unpaid fines as a way to alleviate the shortage of parking downtown.
“I personally do not think that metered parking is something that needs to be done downtown,” she said.
FLOYD GRIFFIN JR.
City Hall already is a familiar venue to Griffin. He was mayor from 2002 through 2006.
Griffin said that given the ethics issues, Milledgeville is in a “crisis.”
Because of that crisis, “you’re going to need someone who can hit the ground running,” he said. “Experience counts.”
Griffin said he would be a mayor who knows how to support the efforts of the economic development professionals who already are at work. Part of that is negotiating state politics and government in Atlanta.
He was a state senator from 1994 through 1998, and some of his colleagues are still in Atlanta in positions of power.
In Atlanta, he learned a about closing deals. He cited one example of a $500,000 state cash infusion that helped lure Lowe’s to Milledgeville during his first term as mayor.
“Though I’ve been out of politics for a while, I still have those contacts,” he said. “At least they know who I am. ... If I call and make an appointment, they won’t say ‘Floyd who?’”
He said he also will make visits to senior state leaders to clear up Milledgeville’s image.
He’d also like to get the mayor, City Council members and the city manager working peacefully together. Some of today’s members were on the council during Griffin’s previous tenure, on opposite sides of a dispute over a cut to the mayor’s powers that led all the way to the state Supreme Court.
In the first month or so of his term, Griffin would like to have a retreat with the council to talk about roles, responsibilities and repairing Milledgeville’s image. He would like to have a public listening session on the same topic.
Thrower said the biggest issues for the next mayor to tackle are the hospital and jobs. “It would be tragic if we lost the hospital,” Thrower said.
Once the hospital’s new management makes its needs known, he said, “then hopefully the city can sit down with the county and the hospital authority to explore ways that we can assist.”
As for ethics, Thrower is ready to move to the next chapter.
He’s ready to put part of the blame for open meetings violations on human nature and things said as a way of blowing off steam.
“Retaliation certainly is something we cannot tolerate ... and I don’t think it’s how they intended to run their business at the time,” Thrower said.
“But it happened, we dealt with it, it’s time to move on.”
A key part of the mayor’s job is as “ambassador and promoter” of Milledgeville, Thrower said.
“I would be more available to the professionals that we’ve hired ... where they need me to be.”
The city has a good quality of life that it could better highlight to lure new businesses, he said.
Thrower also said he thinks there is money to be saved by the city and county sharing some jobs -- like sharing equipment or personnel -- that could save money. But he said there’s no need to merge the city and county to realize those savings.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday, the top two candidates will head to a July 14 runoff.