The Union Recorder

November 7, 2011

Meetings to take closer look at local unification

Jonathan Jackson
The Union-Recorder

MILLEDGEVILLE — Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing series examining city and county government unification. Today’s article gives an overview and context for the upcoming community forums on the topic. Tuesday’s article will examine the unification method used by the Athens and Clarke County governments several years ago.

Within a group of locals taking part in Baldwin 20/20 through the Milledgeville Baldwin County Chamber of Commerce a few years ago, a core collection of business and civic leaders and community members emerged to form Partners for Progress. That organization has since taken goals identified within Baldwin 20/20, and members have also identified others they plan to address.

A successful tool that has helped mark those areas of concern has been community forums. At the annual Partners for Progress meeting in March, committees were formed and found direction based on input from those who participated.

According to current Partners for Progress chair Dr. Renee Fontenot, six areas of concern were identified in the course of the meetings, and those six areas prompted the creation of committees addressing government, education, retirement, transportation, business development and economic development.

“At our last Voices for Progress meeting [held in March], we got the directive from those individuals who came for essentially six committees,” Fontenot recently told the Baldwin County Commission. “Those six committees meet on a regular basis and are looking at issues and examining things to help move, make progress happen in Baldwin County, forward.”

Part of that forward momentum falls to the government committee where the idea of unification of city and county governments and services is being raised.

Committee chair Merritt Massey recently invited Milledgeville City Council and the Baldwin County Commission to a series of meetings that are designed to open a dialogue and educate people about unification. The upcoming meetings are not limited to elected officials but are instead community-wide functions aimed at engaging local citizens in exploring unification possibilities.

“In continuing the education process, Partners for Progress is inviting all citizens of Milledgeville and Baldwin County to four community meetings on unification,” Massey told the commission.

On hand to provide information vital to the process is professor Harry Hayes with the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, an entity that, as its website states, works with “public officials throughout Georgia and around the world to improve governance and people’s lives.” The Vinson Institute has assisted other communities with unification methods in the past, providing objective research data and conducting studies on individual communities that help them pinpoint potential issues and gaps they need to address in the process. One such analysis of Baldwin County was conducted several years ago.

One objective the government committee hopes to meet, Massey said, is to provide information on the many variations in form unification can take.

Consolidation of governments can range from drastic measures resulting in job losses and service delivery gaps, taking months to regulate. Other approaches can stretch over years, utilizing attrition to address employee positions and jobs and gradual implementation of service delivery strategies. Consolidation can also fall anywhere between those two extremes, and some interested in the discussion say the key to the unification pathway lies in the chartering document, which outlines specifics for individual communities in how the process is to be carried out at each level. The chartering document is often tailored to fit the respective community by its citizens, who determine what all it includes.

Hayes will discuss that process at the meetings that will be spread out in four locations, at different times. Meeting dates and times are:

n 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, at Flagg Chapel Baptist Church;

n 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15, at the Baldwin County Recreation Department at Walter B. Williams Park;

n Noon Thursday, Nov. 17, at Digital Bridges; and

n 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 19, at the Baldwin County Board of Education.