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Gainesville mayor, school chairman get referendum

POSTED: April 4, 2009 1:43 a.m.

The state Senate on Friday passed a pair of bills authorizing a nonbinding referendum on an elected mayor and board of education chairman for the city of Gainesville.

The bills, earlier passed by the House, await the signature of Gov. Sonny Perdue.

The measures were authored by Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, and had the support of the Hall County legislative delegation.
Rogers’ proposal was met with opposition from some members of the Gainesville City Council and board of education.

Gainesville Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Bruner said Friday that she is not opposed to an elected mayor, but she wants to make sure the city’s government system, which keeps the city manager as chief executive, stays intact. Councilman Danny Dunagan agreed.

Both said with the extent of services the city offers, from trash collection to water and sewer, it needs to be run by a professional, not a politician.

“I don’t think anybody’s really advocating a strong mayor system,” Bruner said.

The nonbinding referendum would go before voters in the November municipal elections. If approved by voters, it is likely that Rogers would introduce legislation in next year’s session to amend the city’s charter.

Currently, the job of mayor is rotated among city council members every two years. The school board chairman is elected by board members.

Under the current system, Bruner would become mayor in 2010, and her term could be affected by the referendum

“I don’t have a problem with an elected mayor,” Dunagan said. “If that’s what the citizens want, then far be it from me to question it.”

Bruner said council members should start working together and with residents now to come up with a suggested government system to propose to state legislators if the referendum bill is signed into law.

Bruner said the city’s wards will likely have to be redrawn in the coming years when census information is updated in 2010. Having an elected mayor would likely also cause redistricting in the city. It would make more sense, Bruner said, to redraw city wards once rather than twice.

Dunagan took issue only with Rogers’ approach to the referendum. Rogers first broached the idea in a December meeting with the City Council. After that initial meeting, Dunagan said Rogers never responded to requests from the council to meet and discuss the issue.

“I guess he felt like he had to accomplish something this session so this is the one thing he accomplished,” Dunagan said.
“They can’t even run the state much less run the city of Gainesville.”

Mayor Myrtle Figueras and Councilman Robert “Bob” Hamrick were not immediately available for comment.

Gainesville school board chairman David Syfan said he is concerned the referendum question could be too vague and a referendum may have unintended consequences.

Syfan said it remains to be seen if a voter-approved referendum would require the city’s five wards to be redrawn to allow for four ward representatives on the board rather than five to allow for a fifth citywide chairman. The board now has five board members and five ward representatives, one of which serves as chairman at the discretion of the board.

Ward 1 representative Syfan and Ward 4 representative Kelvin Simmons are up for re-election in November.

Syfan also said he believes if the referendum were passed, it may further muddy the waters of school board politics.

“To me, it’s trying to interject politics into it in that as I said, I haven’t heard anybody yet say the reason for this is to increase student achievement,” he said. “We all try to as best as we can to let what’s in the best interest of all our kids from an educational viewpoint guide us rather than politics, so I’m a little worried that it’s just bringing more politics into already a pretty political situation.”

Syfan said he believes Rogers may have initiated the legislation because the Gainesville school board did not take immediate action last summer when its multimillion-dollar deficit came to light calling into question the former superintendent’s job performance.

Gainesville school board member Sammy Smith said once the board elected Syfan as its chairman in July, the board ran “more smoothly.” Smith said the board’s current method of electing a chairman works “OK.”

Smith said he hopes the legislature will review other school board charter issues, such as the school board’s size in relation to city and student population. As for the potential November referendum, Smith said he stands behind the voters.



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