For good reason, seats were hard to find at Tuesday’s Baldwin County Commissioners’ meeting.
Citizens got their first elected official answer concerning the Milledgeville-Baldwin County, Georgia Unified Government Charter.
County Commission Chairman Sammy Hall, District 3, was the swing vote that passed the resolution requesting that the local delegation of the Georgia General Assembly introduce legislation to approve and adopt the proposed charter to unify the governments of Baldwin County and the City of Milledgeville.
If successfully introduced and passed this legislative session, citizens could vote on a referendum to accept the charter document’s foundation for unifying the two governments this November. The charter already contains a provision for a referendum following its passage in the legislature.
The 3-2 county vote broke down with Tommy French, District 2, and Emily Davis, District 1, against, while Henry Craig, District 4, and Johnny Westmoreland, District 5, joined Hall in support.
Hall read a prepared statement before his decisive vote.
The commission chairman said elected officials are charged with making decisions on behalf of the people, and if those decisions aren’t agreeable, the “ballot box is were changes are made.”
Hall said he’s heard no great public outcry concerning this unification charter.
“I’ve had five people contact me not affiliated with the charter writing group,” he said Tuesday evening.
Hall told the board his purpose during the charter-editing phase was not to agree or disagree with unification, but to create a document that “made sense and could work as a new governmental organization.”
“The document in front of us tonight is much better than the original document. I still have issues with the current document,” Hall said. “There is no documentation showing it will save any money or any study showing the initial costs.”
He cited an immediate cost increase to those in the unincorporated area in the form of franchise fees and people in special tax districts.
“Having said all this, I’m not endorsing or opposing the issue of unification. The changing of this government is too big for the board to decide alone. I’m not willing to deny the voters the opportunity to vote on the issue of unification. Therefore, I vote in favor of the motion,” Hall said. “Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.”
Craig urged the board to say ‘yes’ prior to the surprising vote. The District 4 Commissioner cited a high “degree of despair” in the community.
“It’s about the potential of being greater as one than we are as two,” Craig said. “Separately, our economic situation has never been worse in our lifetime. We are struggling.”
French said many don’t understand the “magnitude” of consolidation.
“It’s throwing away your government,” he said. “No one has shown me one line item of what the cost of this will be.”
The District 2 Commissioner compared the effort to move the charter forward to telling citizens “we are writing a blank check to get rid of our government.”
French said Macon-Bibb County is having a “nightmare” with their charter.
Numerous citizens spoke on both sides of the pressing agenda item.
Dr. Stan Aldridge, a member of the Unified Government Charter Writing Committee, spoke first Tuesday.
“I think out charter is the best I’ve seen because of the input we’ve had,” Aldridge said. “We’ve written, changed and revised it. It’s not a perfect document. It’s always a work in progress, and it has been since the day we started this.”
Campus Club Milledgeville Director Greg Barnes said his biggest problem wasn’t the charter document, but the process with which it was presented.
“I’m very concerned about some of those entities that I don’t think should have been involved,” he said. “I’m not for or against it right now. I was hoping to continue to see the document, and this could push back.”
Citizen David Sinclair was brief in his statements.
“It’s the right of people in any community governed by a democratic government that they have the right to vote,” Sinclair said.
Danielle Fields told commissioners and the large crowd she was concerned about the “speed at which this is going” and urged caution.
“I really do not have a huge issue with the document, but the fact that there is no information about how this will affect the finances in the next three years is a huge burden for me,” she said Tuesday. “There is a lot of information we don’t know. Until the people have that, I don’t think it’s fair to have to vote on it. I think the timing is too fast for this community.”
Citizen Hudman Evans completed the public comment period prior to the board’s vote. He said this decision could “tear this county apart.”
“If you start this train in motion, you can’t take your computer mouse and reach up on your task bar and hit undue. It’s rolling,” Evans said. “I’m concerned in the direction I see this city and county headed.”
In January, the Unified Government Charter Writing Committee formerly requested that both city and county governments forward an approved referendum request to the state legislature thereby allowing the citizens of Milledgeville and Baldwin County to vote for or against the Unified Government Charter on the November General Election ballot.
Local legislatures have to know their next move considering the 2014 session ends in mid-March.
The foundation charter for a Milledgeville-Baldwin County, Georgia Unified Government was completed by a diverse eight-member Unified Government Charter Writing Committee and released May 1, 2013.
The writing committee’s work toward letting citizens vote on government consolidation began two years ago. The charter has been through multiple edits since last May.
The proposed charter calls for a 10-citizen transition team including two current county commissioners, two municipal elected officials and six community members (three appointed by the current City Council and three by the current county commissioners). This group would assist the new government with consolidation of services.
Based on the charter document, the transition team may make recommendations to the charter through the state legislative process prior to the actual implementation.
The charter estimates the government transition including all city and county departments and functions to be completed by Jan. 1, 2017 when the newly elected commission would take office.