Ever since Columbia County commissioners first presented the idea of consolidation some five months ago, the idea has received a generally rocky reception.
Things didn't get much smoother this past week.
Commissioners traveled to Atlanta to present lawmakers with the plan for incorporating a city and immediately consolidating it with Columbia County to create a hybrid city/county government.
The Commission wants the legislative delegation to set up a countywide referendum on the issue in November. Delegation members are unsure about whether there's been enough study and discussion yet.
So where does it all stand with the public? At this point, not very well. And unfortunately, the debate has caused some bad blood between local governments. Whatever the outcome of consolidation, some serious healing needs to take place. Consider:
From the start, city officials in Harlem and Grovetown feared consolidation of the county could shut down their ability to grow through annexation.
State Rep. Barry Fleming, a Harlem resident, also serves as the city's attorney. When the city expressed concerns about consolidation, county officials filed a Freedom of Information Act request for how much Fleming has made in attorney fees representing the city.
The county's move was rotten PR, but it was entirely legal. Harlem officials felt like they were being intimidated, and made things worse by responding that producing such records - normally provided at little or no cost to media or the public - would cost the county a staggering $1,500.
In an effort to gain the city's cooperation, County Commission Chairman Ron Cross asked the cities' mayors what the county could do to win their support. Harlem wasn't interested, but Grovetown Mayor Dennis Trudeau said his city needs additional sewer hookups.
Depending on the version of the somewhat-in-dispute exchange that followed, Cross either provided promises of assistance for the city's growth, or a threat for shutting it down. Either way, Trudeau first accepted Cross' offer, and then publicly rejected it.
When commissioners finally wrapped up a series of public meetings held to discuss consolidation, they announced plans to present the proposal to lawmakers in Atlanta - yet did an awful job of first finding out if the lawmakers could actually meet with them. The result was an ever-shifting schedule that left lawmakers feeling like a still-incomplete document had been unceremoniously dumped in their laps.
Whew. Time to take a breather. The best way to do so is what lawmakers suggested from the beginning: Appoint a citizen panel to thoroughly study the consolidation issue, and from that study give voters the answers they need to intelligently consider whether making such a change.
In any event, the bad blood flowing from this effort thus far can't be allowed to continue. If everyone truly has the best interests of the community at heart, there can be no reason for such continued animosity.
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