Buckhead Coalition President and former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell recently presented the following remarks before the County Commission Structure Subcommittee meeting of the Joint Study Committee on Fulton County Governance of the Georgia State Legislature
By Sam Massell, President
The Buckhead Coalition
Those who are in the public arena realize that of the thousands of political bodies throughout our country, not a single one is unanimously loved by its constituency. We also complain about the weather, with prayer being the only way to address its problems. On the other hand, cities, counties, and even states constantly try to improve on governance with all kinds of fine tuning.
With regard to our Fulton County, I think we can all agree its present approval rating is low in many quarters. In fact, it’s safe to report that complaints have surfaced over many years for many reasons–some partisan, some racial, some geographical, and some from other factions, most of which stem from turf pride. There has been dissatisfaction by some about taxes, by some about zoning, by some about public safety, by some about delivery of services, and more.
The common thread in all of this is the feeling by the individual citizen that he or she is not being represented by some of those in office. In my opinion, it has nothing to do with the size of the county or the size of the commission. It has to do with who has been elected to govern, and I suggest that can be changed without damaging part of the county by dividing it to create a new county of Fulton’s higher income and higher educated residents.
If that kind of surgery is done, what will be left will be one of the poorest and one of the least educated counties in the country, and think of how that image will adversly affect economic growth of Atlanta and the balance of Fulton! Think of the impact that would have on our jury system and the awards that could be expected in civil suits! Think of what crime stats would say in the national press! Think of what taxes would have to be on downtown, midtown and Buckhead high-rise buildings! Our population growth could come to a standstill.
The tenets of good government urge fewer entities rather than more, and the probability is that many members of the Georgia legislature prior to election had over the years espoused actual merging of counties for economy and efficiency. In fact, if you have been out among residents of the new Fulton cities, you have heard that many are
disappointed with the results . . . And they would be the first to say “be careful what you ask for”.
To my knowledge no one claims to know of a perfect government structure, or we would all have been emulating it long ago. I’m willing to think boldly, however, in an attempt to improve on what we have, with the least pain to others.
1) Require all members of the commission to live in separate districts, as a means to help bring government closer to the citizenry, allowing everyone an opportunity to “know” an area member.
2) Let the first round be a primary procedure where the top two vote getters in the district then run against each other countywide. This would mean that every single registered voter in Fulton County would have a voice in electing every single member of the commission! That would eliminate the “that’s not my table” syndrome like you experience sometimes in a restaurant . . . And what too often the public experiences from some district-elected officials. The only down side to this is that campaigning would cost more, but I believe those who fund these contests would step right up to the plate in order to produce government that was responsive to the districts as well as to the entire county.
3) Stagger the terms of the commissioners to ensure some continuity and prevent the risk of electing an entire board of neophytes at one time.
4) Elect the chairman at-large without relation to district lines and make this a full-time position with increased powers of administration relegating the full commission (of which the chairman would be a voting member) to policy legislative responsibilities.
5) Change the Fulton County Commission elections to nonpartisan, as we did for city of Atlanta elections about 50 years ago, so the focus will be on local issues of most interest to the citizens of our county.
6) Give the county power to provide a specific list of requested services to its cities. An example could be traffic policemen.
Having spent 22 years in elected offices, during which time I served as president of the 15,000-member national League of Cities, I’ve seen a lot of government, and I’m satisfied these recommendations would improve the relationships Fulton residents have with their government. This formula will not hurt Democrats or Republicans; it will not hurt blacks or whites; it will not hurt northsiders or southsiders. It will in no way damage the image of Atlanta or Fulton, like secession could cause. It’s not perfect, but a perfect system hasn’t been invented yet.
Buckhead that I’m representing is doing well for Atlanta and Fulton and wishes to continue this role far into the future.