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Gainesville's changes in council structure come rarely
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With state legislation to add an elected mayor to Gainesville City Council getting final approval, it would be the first substantive change since the city went from a three-person commission to five in 1958.

In the 1950s, some Gainesville residents were less than enthusiastic about the three-man operation. And it was "man" because no women had been elected at that point, not to mention any blacks.

The three on the commission were Mayor Charles Thurmond, Mayor Pro-Tem Ray Knickerbocker and Perry Chapman. They were at times controversial, though fairly aggressive in trying to move the city forward.

Lake Lanier was filling to its normal level, and commissioners saw opportunities for the city with water supply, tourism and recreation not only for Gainesvillians, but the whole state.

Chattahoochee Golf Course also was being built at the time, and it attracted some criticism from those who felt its construction was poorly managed and too costly. Commissioners saw it as a valuable amenity the city had to have, replacing a nine-hole course at the end of Woodsmill Road that Lake Lanier inundated. The city had received $150,000 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for loss of the old golf course, and that money would help build the new one.

Many Gainesville residents felt the city’s growth and related issues required broader representation on the commission. Commissioners had overdrawn the city’s bank account by half a million dollars. Some citizens thought a three-person board made it too easy for two of them to get together and decide issues against the third member.

The city’s tax rate at the time was 29 mills, a figure many thought was much too high. Urban renewal was also an issue that some believed would be too expensive and involve too much federal government red tape.

Actually it had been a decadelong campaign to change the city commission’s structure. The last change had been in 1923 when the city had moved from a council form of government to one with a three-member commission.

A referendum to add two commissioners in 1958 had decided the matter on a vote of 925 to 163. After the five-person commission was approved, candidates for the two additional seats began to file their petitions.

Furniture dealer Cliff Martin, businesswoman Vi Leverett and poultryman June Robinson ran for one seat. Poultryman Tiger Bennett, restaurant owner Jimmy Caras and pool room owner Pete Tankersley qualified for the other office.

Tankersley won his race with 1,146 votes to Bennett’s 997 and Caras’ 375. Martin beat Leverett and Robinson 1,542 to 823 and 161. Leverett was only the second woman to run for a city seat. Owner of a Ford dealership, she was on the first jury that sat women in Hall County and became the state’s first female jury foreman.

That first meeting of the five commissioners July 1, 1958, attracted a large crowd, not because there were that many hot issues on the agenda, but mostly out of curiosity as to how the new arrangement would work.

Ministers were there to speak against package beer sales; others were there to support such sales. Commissioners approved another $15,000 for work on the golf course, renamed Railroad Avenue to Industrial Boulevard and allowed engineers to continue to work toward a sewage treatment plant on Flat Creek. Some other matters were postponed for study.

So, assuming the six-person Gainesville City Council will go into effect, voters will have to elect a mayor and look forward to another change in city government, although those changes have been few and far between.

Footnote: When Karl Wallenda walked that 2-inch cable across Tallulah Gorge back in 1970, Mrs. Wallenda watched him start, but preferred not to see the whole walk. Instead, she was driven around to the other side in time to see him do a couple of headstands and finish the walk.

Steve Hill (not the architect) was with a Boy Scout Explorer post from Gainesville volunteering for the event. He drove Mrs. Wallenda to the end point of her husband’s walk in Bill Banks’ Civil Defense Ford station wagon. Hill said Wallenda asked for a martini when he got to the other side.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at