Warner Robins is growing up: What’s next?

Warner Robins City Council members during a recent debate on whether to hire a city administrator.
Warner Robins City Council members during a recent debate on whether to hire a city administrator. The Telegraph

Warner Robins residents will start going to the polls during the early voting period starting Oct. 16. They have until Tuesday to register to vote. Before examining — in our estimation — the basic issues facing residents, it is helpful, though disappointing to note, that voters in the International City have been anything but stellar performers when it comes to turning out for elections.

In the 2013 race for mayor there were six candidates, two of which are in this year’s race, the incumbent Randy Toms and his challenger then as now, Joe Musselwhite. Also in the 2013 race was Chuck Chalk, Mike Brashear, Daron Lee and Eva Folse.

All the candidates combined spent more than $100,000 on the race, but for some reason, voters didn’t get excited. Only 6,604 cast ballots in the November election and none of the candidates could crack the 50 percent-plus-1 threshold. The two top vote getters, Toms and Musselwhite, headed for a December runoff where even fewer people, 4,700, voted.

There are many issues facing Warner Robins, but in each — from public safety to transportation to governance — there is one overriding theme. Warner Robins is no longer the little city that Mayor Donald Walker pushed into a growth pattern that has yet to ebb. That growth, for some, is uncomfortable. The city seeks industry, but that quest has been elusive. Residents want to keep a low tax structure, but there are services many of its citizens are looking for and industries seeking to relocate demand, that are missing.

Lately there has been a fight over how to govern the city. Should Warner Robins change its structure to provide for a city manager (sometimes called a city administrator)? While the council has approved the idea, it has not defined the position and decided not put clothes on the mannequin until after the election. Then, depending on who wins, the issue will either die or not.

Not that Warner Robins should follow the crowd, but there is value in looking at what other cities are doing — and why. The Georgia Municipal Association represents 521 cities and counties in the state and 235 of those governments have city managers or administrators. Thirty-two, have a city manager and at least one assistant. Berekley Lake, Barnesville, Ackworth, Cartersville, Dunwoody, LaGrange, Riverdale and Sandy Springs are among them. Not to mention the larger cities such as Albany, Augusta, Columbus, Macon-Bibb, Savannah and Athens-Clarke County.

As near as we can tell, it’s not a population thing. Little Sugar Hill in northern Gwinnett County, population 22,000, has a city manager and an assistant. And yes, all of the municipalities have a mayor or county chairman. Johns Creek, a city in Fulton County, that is just about the same size as Warner Robins has a city manager, senior assistant manager and two other assistants. What does stand out is that Warner Robins is the only city of its population in the state without a professional running the day to day activities.

What does a city manager do that a mayor can’t? A city manager doesn’t depend on the vagarities of the electorate. Warner Robins has been fortunate, for the most part. It has elected competent people to lead it, but that may not always be the case, and even if it is, Warner Robins has become too big and complex for one person to attempt to keep all of its balls in the air. And in today’s world, full of competition between cities and counties, no city can afford to allow any of the balls to drop as competing priorities suck the life out of a day. That is of particular importance in a town that hosts a military installation the size of Robins Air Force Base.

Elected officials also have a tendency to focus on short-term bursts of four years. A professional city manager can help an area look beyond that short time frame and plan well beyond any elected officials’ term of office.

Citizens of Warner Robins have to realize their city is growing up. It is unfortunate that as the city grows, some of the same problems seen in larger cities will find a home in Warner Robins, too. Issues of crime, blight, indigent health, transit and transportation, diversity in city employment and promotions, all sit on the shelf waiting to be conquered. They won’t disappear.

This election, voters have to decide if they want to hide from the future or figure out how to deal with it. If it is the latter, which candidate can best lead that effort? It’s time to start asking those questions.