Politics & Government

Lawyers dueling over proposed change in Macon-Bibb elections

Macon Democrat state Reps. Nikki Randall and James Beverly say that their Republican colleagues are stalling on local legislation that would do the county good.
Macon Democrat state Reps. Nikki Randall and James Beverly say that their Republican colleagues are stalling on local legislation that would do the county good. mlee@macon.com

ATLANTA -- As candidates sign up to run for Macon-Bibb elections in May, lawyers differ over whether election day could be shifted to November.

The bid is unlikely to happen this year, if for no other reason than state lawmakers are scheduled to finish their annual session March 24, and it's getting late for them to approve anything new.

And besides that, the Macon-Bibb lawmakers who would need to start the process now have two different legal opinions on their hands.

Macon-Bibb County Attorney Judd Drake has written in one letter that an election shift to November cannot be done as state Rep. James Beverly proposes to do it via House Bill 978.

Beverly wants to set Macon-Bibb's nonpartisan County Commission and mayoral elections at the same time as presidential votes because that's when turnout is traditionally highest.

But Drake's letter says state law requires such nonpartisan, consolidated government elections to be held during the primaries.

Beverly's bill has a legal defense too, though. Bills at the state Capitol are drafted by staff attorneys in the Office of Legislative Counsel. A letter from H. Jeff Lanier, deputy legislative counsel, says the bill that came out of his shop is valid and that the elections could be moved.

Drake said as a matter of practice, he always reviews bills that are written in Atlanta but affect only Macon-Bibb County.

He said he respects the interpretation from the capitol attorney and that "intelligent minds can differ."

State Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch, chairman of the team of Macon-Bibb lawmakers, said he would call a meeting to "try and get the attitudes, opinions of everybody on the delegation."

But Beverly's canvassing has so far failed to attract any GOP support. Fellow Democratic state Rep. Nikki Randall is a co-signer, but he needs at least one Republican representative from Macon-Bibb to sign on for him to get a House committee hearing.

Beverly's critics have said it is too late to move the election. And besides that, if nonpartisan elections are held in November, any necessary runoffs would be around Christmas or New Year's, when turnout might be low.

One critic of the proposal has been Macon-Bibb Mayor Robert Reichert. Beverly blamed the mayor for Drake's letter.

"I think the mayor and his legal counsel have tried to influence the way that we do legislation by putting out an opinion that is completely false. I think that's a problem," Beverly said. He said it might be worth calling the Department of Justice. That's the agency that investigates unfair voting practices, among other duties.

But Reichert's spokesman, Chris Floore, said Beverly's criticism does not apply because Reichert did not seek the legal opinion.

"It was the county attorney doing what he does with local legislation," Floore said.

To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail mlee@macon.com.