An iron-clad rule of politics is that underdogs have to act boldly to get noticed. That partly explains why state Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta, is pushing a bill to let voters approve a change in Augustas government.
Not many people give the bill a chance, because state Sen. Charles Walker, D-Augusta, authored the original Augusta-Richmond County consolidation bill and is dead-set against reform.
Walker may have trapped himself, however; when Burmeister first floated the idea a couple of weeks ago, Walker said hed never back anything that didnt have voter approval.
Calling that bluff, Burmeister designed the proposal as a referendum, and rolled out the whole package with a media splash last week. Now lets see if Walker will let the bill out of the Senate.
In the unlikely event that the bill passed, followed by its likely passage by voters, Augusta would get a much-improved government that establishes separate executive and legislative branches. The mayor would no longer have a vote, but hed be able to veto any proposal. Com-missioners could override the veto with seven votes, a super-majority on the 10-member commission. As for tie votes, the issue at hand would simply fail to win approval - similary, Burmeister says, to the system used by the 10-member Richmond County Board of Education.
The proposal also would prevent commissioners from gumming up the works by abstaining from votes - a truly despicable practice - and it would take hiring and firing power away from commissioners and give it to the city administrator.
Those are great ideas and would give a proper balance to Augusta power. But while were looking across the border, its useful to look within our own county to see just what kind of government well have this time next year. Because while Augustas future is unclear, Columbia Countys government will be different in 2003.
Currently, Columbia County is divided into five districts of roughly 18,000 residents each, with one commissioner who lives in each district elected by the voters of that district. (About half the population of Columbia County is registered to vote, so there are about 9,000 voters in each Commission district.)
One of those five commissioners serves as chairman, elected to the post by his or her fellow commissioners. The chairman has a few statutory duties, and a great many others built up through tradition. The day-to-day operation of the government is handled by a county administrator hired by the Commission.
Columbia County legislators will soon change this government structure, based on the results of the 2000 straw poll calling for an elected chairman and four district commissioners.
Under the new government, there will be four districts with roughly 22,500 residents each. The chairman will run for office countywide, representing all 90,000 residents (or roughly 45,000 voters). The chairmanship will still be a part-time post, and the daily government will still be run by the administrator. The chairman will still vote just like any other commissioner, and wont have veto power.
Compared to Burmeisters proposal for Augusta, Columbia Countys new government will actually have more in common with the current Augusta setup. Like the Augusta mayor, the chairman will be elected countywide but will have little real authority. Hell be a baby-kissing ribbon-cutter, as detractors like to say, without individual power to sway legislation.
Columbia Countys government is designed to let elected officials set policy while the administrator runs things. Thats certainly better than Augustas current government, in which the elected officials set policy and try to run things.
But Burmeisters vision for a reformed Augusta government, especially with its division of authority, actually would create a form of government that may be superior to Columbia Countys soon-to-be changed system.
Burmeisters bill would probably pass overwhelmingly if it went to voters - which is why the defenders of Augustas dysfunctional status quo will quietly derail it before it ever gets that far. In that respect, Columbia County has the advantage: While changing a well-run system is risky, at least we arent afraid to try.
(Barry L. Paschal is opinions editor of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barrypaschal@ yahoo.com.)
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