Gainesville voters may be less than thrilled with their paltry few ballot choices in the Nov. 3 municipal elections.
Two City Council members, George Wangemann and Danny Dunagan, are unopposed for re-election. That leaves two school board races, with four candidates seeking a turn managing the city’s schools. Those posts are important, true, but it only involves voters in those two board districts.
But what might have been a rather tepid election was spiced up last spring when state Rep. Carl Rogers was able to pass a bill adding a nonbinding referendum to the city’s ballot calling for an elected mayor and school board chairman.
For years, Gainesville has used a different system of government than most cities, electing five city council members who rotate the largely ceremonial mayor’s post. The executive role is played by the city manager, currently Kip Padgett. The school board members vote on their chairman.
Only a handful of cities in Georgia use such a system, Rome being the most notable and similar in size and demographics to Gainesville.
Now a referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot will give Gainesville residents a chance to weigh in on whether they prefer to elect a mayor and board chairman directly to set terms with a set list of responsibilities.
Election of a school board chairman won’t have a major effect on how that body is managed one way or another, officials say. So let’s focus for now on what an elected mayoral post might mean for Gainesville.
Before we begin to analyze the pros and cons of such a move, keep in mind a few caveats. The referendum is nonbinding, meaning nothing may come of it even if voters show strong approval. But a strong turnout and a heavy margin in favor would impel the state legislature to pursue such a path.
Even if voters vote "yes," there are several hurdles to clear before a mayoral race can be held. First, the legislature must act to rewrite Gainesville’s city charter. Then local legislators and Gainesville officials then must come together to determine how to define the role of an elected mayor.
And there are quite a few variables. They could decide to keep the mayor’s job as mostly ceremonial, with little executive power, and let the city manager retain most of those duties. That seems to be the most likely scenario if the change occurs.
They also can decide if the mayoral post is to be part-time or full-time. They can determine if he or she would retain a vote on the council or split the two into separate executive and legislative branches. And depending on how the post is defined, it could determine if the council will continue to keep five council seats and the current ward system or revise it completely. All that may be on the table if the city charter is revised.
Keep in mind, as well, that the legislators would have final say in how it is done, even with input from city officials. Such a scenario could lead to tension and conflicting agendas. So even if voters go big-time for electing a mayor and chairman, it may be awhile before such a vote is ever cast.
Is an elected mayor a good idea? We think it is.
The current system keeps all council members on an even playing field and turns over executive functions to the city manager, a hired professional more focused on performance than politics. That idea certainly has merit, and keeps elected officials from using the mayor’s position as a launching pad toward higher office.
Then again, the city manager is answerable only to the council that hired him, not directly to residents. An elected mayor serving a specific term would serve as the face and voice of Gainesville in dealing both with city residents and other governments.
In recent years, there have been occasions when city government appeared to be a rudderless ship with no clear captain in charge. When controversies erupt, there is nowhere for the buck to stop, which leads to fingers pointing in all directions. We are convinced it is more effective to have a single strong leader to gather consensus and rally the city’s resources to meet a crisis. One can’t picture a five-headed council or unelected city manager filling such a role.
Still, those who say the current system has worked well have a strong case as well. "Why fix what isn’t broken?" they ask. If the city is run well as is, what is the motivation to change it?
That’s valid, up to a point. Yet Gainesville is no longer a sleepy rural town; it is a vibrant, growing city of more than 30,000 at the hub of a county that is fast approaching 200,000 residents. A long-term change in the city’s governmental structure would be in its long-term interests.
And that consideration should be at the center of the decision: Not just what works now, but what government structure is best to help Gainesville grow and prosper in years to come. This referendum shouldn’t be considered a measure of how current council members are doing their jobs, but instead a look toward the future.
We are convinced that a change in the form of government for the city will result in the brightest of all possible futures for Gainesville. The first step toward making that change happen is for residents to vote in favor on Nov. 3.