By Dave Oedel, March 26, 2015, Macon Georgia:
The Monitor has already covered the retaliation controversy surrounding the movement of some Milledgeville city funds away from Century Bank, and special master Patrick Longan’s recommendation to fire city manager Barry Jarrett as a result. Jarrett elected not to appeal that ruling by March 18, 2015, and Milledgeville’s City Council has not acted to fire Jarrett. That seems to indicate that special master Longan’s recommendation to fire Jarrett will not be implemented.
That kerfuffle is seen by many in the community to be a satellite issue revolving around a bigger question of whether to unify, or, in other words, consolidate, Milledgeville and Baldwin County. That issue will probably come before the voters on November 3, 2015. Voters from both political entities would need to endorse the referendum before unification/consolidation could occur.
In fact, the letter of Century Bank president Chat Daniel from January, 2014 that apparently precipitated the city’s shift of some city funds away from Century Bank, Longan’s subsequent report, and the controversy about Jarrett’s job, all were largely predicated on a dispute about consolidation. Daniel complained in his letter to the Union Recorder that Milledgeville’s City Council was hostile to unification/harmonization.
Consolidation politics and the process of consolidation in nearby Macon-Bibb County have been carefully watched in Baldwin County and Milledgeville for several years. Macon-Bibb did finally pass consolidation in 2012, and consolidation took effect in 2014.
While Macon-Bibb’s battles were being joined, Baldwin County and its county seat, Milledgeville, were gearing up for their own attempt at unification/consolidation. Various committees were organized to study the possibility beginning in 2009, resulting in the proposed unified government charter that now sits on Governor Nathan Deal’s desk.
The proposed unification/consolidation of Milledgeville with Baldwin County would join together a city, population 19,256, with a county, population 46,039 according to U.S. Census data. The citizens of unincorporated Baldwin County significantly outnumber the citizens of Milledgeville, roughly 26,783 to 19,256. Milledgeville population is only 72 percent the size of the population living in unincorporated Baldwin. Stated another way, Milledgeville makes up about 42 percent of Baldwin County’s overall population. More people live outside of Milledgeville in Baldwin County than live within Milledgeville’s city limits.
By contrast, in Macon-Bibb’s consolidation, the citizens of Macon significantly outnumbered the citizens of the unincorporated county, about 92,000 in the city to about 56,000 in the unincorporated county.
Another difference in the situations is the relative financial strength of the two pairs. Macon had weaker finances than its Bibb county government, but Milledgeville has somewhat stronger financial footings than its Baldwin county government.
Moreover, Macon-Bibb had significant racial population differences between the city and county units, with the county being about evenly balanced between African Americans and whites, and Macon being predominantly African-American.
By contrast, Milledgeville and Baldwin County have relatively similar ratios of African Americans and whites. In 2013 according to the U.S. census, for instance, Milledgeville had 42 percent African American and 53 percent white population, while Baldwin County had 42 percent African American and 55 percent white population.
Moreover, those ratios have held remarkably steady, at least through censuses going back through 1990. In contrast, Macon’s African-American ratio had been trending significantly higher as a percent of total population since 1990. That resulted in the Macon-Bibb consolidation proposal being seen by some African Americans as having been a racially motivated chance to disenfranchise African American voters.
Macon’s first African American mayor, C. Jack Ellis, was elected twice beginning in 1999, but was term limited after eight years. A white mayor, Robert Reichert, was elected in 2007, and reelected by a narrow margin against Ellis shortly before consolidation in 2011. After consolidation in 2013, Reichert won a rematch with Ellis more handily.
State Rep. Culver “Rusty” Kidd and Sen. Burt Jones, Baldwin’s local delegation to the state’s General Assembly, pushed H.B. 67 through despite skepticism from Milledgeville’s city council and others. Milledgeville City Council would be disbanded were unification to occur. Ironically, despite Chat Daniel’s letter in January, 2104 expressing ire about Milledgeville’s city council resisting a voter referendum on the subject, it proved unnecessary to secure city council’s blessing to secure the voter referendum on November 3, 2105, just as that proved true in Macon, where Macon’s city council also resisted a vote on consolidation.
Presently, Milledgeville has six councilor slots and one mayor, while Baldwin County has five commissioners, for a total of twelve elected officials. Under the proposed unified charter, there would be one commission with five members, plus a mayor and vice mayor. In other words, there would be a reduction in the total number of elected officials from twelve to seven. Like the Macon-Bibb system, the sheriff would become leader of a unified police force. There would still remain, however, a professional manager to run day-to-dy operations.
Emily Davis, a Baldwin County commissioner, says that she sees racial motivations behind the proposal. “It’s racist,” Davis said to the Monitor.
The votes of elected leaders in both Milledgeville and Baldwin County so far have fallen along race lines. The City Council voted on race lines to object to unification. Baldwin County’s Commission voted on race lines to support unification. Whites supported unification. African-Americans officials voted against it.
The Voting Rights Act, despite changes based on the 2013 United States Supreme Court case of Shelby County v. Alabama, still could provide a vehicle for challenge to the changes if there were evidence of racial motivation in the unification effort. Representative Kidd denies such a motivation on his part. He says that the prime interest behind the proposal is to make the community pull together, and harmonize its voice. Kidd is particularly interested in bringing more business to Milledgeville and Baldwin County after recent job losses from closures at Rheem, the prisons and Central State.
Given that the populations of the two districts are virtually identical in terms of racial make-up, though, it seems doubtful that a Voting Rights Act suit would be successful. When asked about the prospect for reliance on section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to challenge the unification vote, Commissioner Davis did not indicate that such a suit was being planned.
Although there have been demonstrable benefits from Macon-Bibb’s consolidation in terms of governmental harmonization and efficiencies, there are also continuing problems associated with it too, including how to satisfy or evade the requirement of a mandatory 20 percent reduction in the consolidated budget over five years. That leaves Macon-Bibb’s commission, mayor and sheriff considering cuts or some declaration of an emergency that would warrant escape from the legal requirement.
However, unlike Macon-Bibb’s consolidation, the Milledgeville-Baldwin unification would not require reductions in budget, although some economies are hoped for over time. In fact, section 902(b) of the unification provides that “[n]o permanent full-time employee of the City of Milledgeville or Baldwin County shall lose employment or suffer any diminution of compensation resulting from the adoption of this charter.” 902(d) adds that “[el]imination of the duplication of functions shall be addressed through attrition and reassignment.”
Yet some of the highest level jobs could still be in play according to the act. That includes the jobs of the city manager, Jarrett, who is African American, and the Milledgeville police chief, who is white. Various people have been particularly concerned about those positions. Given the recent controversy involving Jarrett, the concerns are understandable.
Off the record, various officials and commenters, both black and white, suggested that unification would probably have no impact on either individual’s job. These people unofficially suggest that Jarrett would probably remain as administrator until he chooses to retire, and the police chief would retain the supervision of law enforcement in what would become the old city limits, although he would report to the sheriff instead of the mayor.
Some of the major handicappers of politics in the local arena were surprisingly cautious in calling an outcome to the November 3 voter referendum, even when given background status.
Unification appears, at this point, to be too close to call. Check back with the Monitor for an independent report later in the process.