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Few Georgia cities have mayoral systems like Gainesville

POSTED: October 25, 2009 12:00 a.m.
/Rome News-Tribune

Rome City Manager John Bennett rides on one of the city's buses.

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Gainesville voters will be polled on whether they want their mayor to be elected citywide on Nov. 3. But Myrtle Figueras, the city’s current mayor, contends she was already elected that way.

All of Gainesville’s council members were elected in a citywide election, including Figueras, who was elected by the residents of Gainesville to represent Ward 3.

Though they are not specifically voted into office as the city’s mayor, Gainesville’s council members have traditionally taken turns serving in the post, rotating the position among themselves every two years.

“The citizens ... can vote on all five council members, so in effect they are electing the mayor,” said Gainesville City Councilman Robert “Bob” Hamrick. “Realizing that, at some point, if a person is in office that long, (he or she) is going to be mayor.”

Hamrick and other council members say they do not see the need for a change in the city’s government. But only 18 cities in Georgia elect their mayor as Gainesville does, according to Harry Hayes, a senior public service assistant at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

And considering the small number of cities who elect their mayor as Gainesville does, state legislators who represent the city have decided to ask residents whether they want to change the city government’s structure.

State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, wrote the bill that created the citywide referendum. Both Rogers and State Rep. Doug Collins, who endorsed Rogers’ bill, say their Gainesville constituents have asked about having an elected mayor for years. Both say they are prepared to enact the will of the people, though neither has decided on the logistics.

“We’re only in the infant stages, but the people I run into favor a mayor running for mayor,” Rogers said.

And while Gainesville’s City Council members, including Figueras, say they have no problem molding the city’s structure to the community’s desires, they hope to have some say in any changes state legislators will make to the city’s charter, a luxury they did not have when Rogers called for the referendum.

Georgia cities’ structure varies

While some states have mandates for local government structures according to population, Georgia does not, Hayes said.

“One of the benefits that local governments have here in Georgia is that, working with the legislature, you can find quite a bit of variation in governmental structure, both in terms of city government and county government,” Hayes said.

“And what that means is, is that the people living within the community have some opportunities to customize their governmental structure to meet their needs.”

Still, most cities in the state choose to elect their mayors separately from the council, Hayes said.

The Carl Vinson Institute keeps records on 535 city governments in the state. Of those, 517 have mayors who are elected at-large, Hayes said.

But included in that handful of city governments are some “noteworthy cities,” like Rome, Griffin and Decatur, Hayes said.

Residents in Rome, a city with a population similar to Gainesville’s, elect their leaders much like Gainesville residents do, and the city’s commissioners also select their mayor.

Rome’s City Manager John Bennett said the city’s structure works well. Bennett said the manager-council form of government keeps Rome and Gainesville’s governments run by a professional administrator.

Bennett, who has been Rome’s city manager since 1984, even goes as far as to say the two cities’ structure is the best way to run a city.

“I think, typically, you will see more financial stability and a more stable work force where you have a city manager (form of government),” Bennett said. “... It takes politics out of the hiring and firing, and you can have a — I would consider — a more professional organization.”

And the way that Rome’s city commissioners elect a mayor among themselves eliminates the possibility of a power struggle in the city’s legislative body, Bennett said.

“It makes all the commissioners equal ... I work for all nine of our commissioners ; I don’t work for just one,” Bennett said. “If you have an elected mayor that appoints the department heads ... then you might have some commissioners that feel like they don’t like what the mayor’s doing but they have no control over what the mayor does.”

A structure like Rome’s might even make the city’s commission stronger, former Rome Mayor Ronnie Wallace said.

If commissioners are elected with the assumption that any one of them might become the city’s mayor, then voters might be more scrupulous, Wallace said.

“As you cast your vote for an elected councilman or commissioner, you may be selecting an individual whose peers might believe he or she should be the leader of the group,” Wallace said. “... Maybe it will make the entire commission candidacy — and those people who are on the commission — maybe it will step them up even a notch with the realization that they could be asked to serve.”

But less than 50 miles away, leaders in Dalton say the city’s elected-mayor system gives the governing body leadership and direction.

Like Gainesville and Rome, Dalton’s city government still runs on a manager-council form of government and the city’s alderman are elected citywide to represent each of the city’s four wards.

But Dalton residents also elect a mayor at-large, or from either ward, to lead the board, City Administrator Ty Ross said.

“It’s a very powerful, unofficial role,” said Brian Anderson, the president of the Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce and a former chairman of the Whitfield County Commission.

Residents in cities the size of Dalton, which has about 1,000 fewer people than Gainesville, look to a mayor to get things accomplished, first-term City Alderman Charlie Bethel said. In his first term on the board, Bethel said he has served under two mayors and has yet to encounter any problems or power struggles.

Bethel said he looks to the city’s mayor to build consensus between the city’s aldermen and set the city agenda.

“People like to know that there’s somebody who’s accountable to them. I think it puts a little more responsibility on an elected mayor than might be if they were selected from a council,” Bethel said. “... It’s hard to have a corporate structure or any sort of accountability structure that doesn’t have a ‘buck-stops-here’ kind of role.”

Since his term first began 21 months ago, Dalton Mayor David Pennington has taken total control of the city’s recreation department budget and turned over the responsibility of the city’s road maintenance to the county government.

The mayor characterizes himself as a “strong personality,” but he says he works as a team with the city’s board of aldermen.

Pennington only votes in the case of a tie, and says he has “probably” never voted.

“Any group works best with a — whether its a business, whether its a government, whatever — where there is a leader, a designated leader,” Pennington said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that if you get the wrong designated leader then it doesn’t work well.”

Coming in ‘cold turkey’

And that may be Gainesville City Councilman Danny Dunagan’s biggest concern about changing the city’s government structure.

Dunagan, like Gainesville’s other council members, says he has no problem with changing the system if it is what residents want. In fact, Dunagan would “probably” run for the post if it was created as such, he said.

But Dunagan contends the city’s current system ensures that the mayor is a seasoned government official.

“When you first get elected, it takes a while to get your feet wet, to get used to everything and see how everything works,” Dunagan said. “An elected mayor may come in there cold turkey, so at least ... the way the system is now, the individual that goes in as mayor has experience and understands how things work and what the procedures are to being mayor.”

Although the city has added a few wards and changed the name of its legislative body, the basic government structure has not changed much in recent memory, said Hamrick, who has served consecutive terms on the council since he was first elected in 1969.

“It’s always been that we select the mayor internally,” Hamrick said. “... You just have to look at sort of the results of what we have today, and I think it has worked well. We have, within the council, good relationships. ... It’s been that way since I’ve been on the council.”

But despite their contentment with the current structure, city officials are still preparing for a possible change in their charter.

Gainesville City Clerk Denise Jordan is researching ways to change the charter to allow for the citywide election of an at-large mayor.

The change will require deciding what role the mayor will play and might mean adding another city ward. But it would not change the “strong city manager system,” in which City Manager Kip Padgett runs the day-to-day operations of the city, Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Bruner said.

Rogers, who proposed the referendum, also said he intends to keep the city manager’s power intact even if voters decide they want to elect a mayor.

Bruner said that city officials hope that if they begin making a proposed changes to the charter, they will be included in discussions about the future of the city’s future. Council members did not feel included in the decision to create the referendum.

Rogers proposed the idea of a possible referendum in a meeting with the City Council last December, stating that his constituents had requested a change in the government.

But council members say they had no further discussions with the state representative on the subject after the initial discussion, although they requested meetings.

“I just feel that at least we could have had discussions so we could know which constituents asked so we could respond to them and go from there,” Figueras said.

But as the referendum is imminent, Figueras said what the residents want, the residents will get. She just hopes that voters show up to make their opinions known and state legislators will include the city’s elected officials on any decisions that affect its future.

“I just want to do the best that I can for everybody who lives in Gainesville,” Figueras said. “If I’m broken, fix me, but if I ain’t broken, leave me alone.”


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