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Your vote for Macon's mayor puts hundreds of other people in power

Macon-Bibb County voters elect one person as mayor, but that individual will put scores of other people in leadership positions

MACON, Ga. — As the Age Friendly Communities Advisory Council was planning strategy for 2020, members realized they are lame ducks appointed by Mayor Robert Reichert, who is in his last year of office.

“So, the new mayor could change everything?” one of them asked.

“Right,” was the reply.

A similar conversation took place at last month’s Land Bank Authority meeting.

While discussing the COVID-19 drain on tax revenues and the possibility of working with other county departments on the budget, authority member Gary Bechtel asked, “When we get a new administration… who’s going to be in these positions?”

Macon-Bibb County voters elect one person as mayor, but that individual will put scores of other people in leadership positions on dozens of boards, commissions and authorities.

Some of the entities serve as advisory boards to research issues and report back to commissioners and the mayor, others have their own regulatory power, such as the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission which can approve or deny projects based on specific zoning requirements, strategic plans and the public’s interest.

Even autonomous entities such as the Macon Water Authority, which is comprised of five elected members, also includes two appointed representatives of Macon-Bibb County.

Chris Floore, the Assistant to the County Manager for Public Affairs, said Mayor Robert Reichert not only draws from his personal knowledge of the local talent base of experts, but listens to others’ suggestions.

“Sometimes he’ll ask the commission or board for their recommendations,” Floore said.

There are nearly four dozen organizations that oversee everything from economic development to the county treescape to what type of public art should be on display.

Some of those groups, such as the newly reconstituted Macon-Bibb County Tree Board, are totally staffed by appointment from the mayor with the approval of the Macon-Bibb County Commission.

The by-laws for each organization often include specific qualifications for appointees.

For instance, when the commissioners considered the recommendations for the Construction Board of Appeals last month, they learned five active members, two alternates and a county building official will hear disputes between local business services staff and construction professionals. The county official would not have a vote and not be able to participate in deliberations or decisions reached.

The five active members must include representatives with experience in architecture or building construction, design and structural engineering, mechanical and plumbing, design and electrical engineering and fire protection engineering.

By code, the reconstituted Tree Board also requires that at least some members are professionally trained in forestry, botany or landscape architecture. The 14 members include half appointed by the mayor and commission and the others are ex-officio, or serve automatically due to the position they hold.

Other entities, such as the Fort Hawkins Board, simply require that a member live in Middle Georgia and be “vitally interested in the early history of Macon.”

The mayor, or a designee, also has a seat on private boards such NewTown Macon an the Cherry Blossom Festival Board of Directors.

Commissioners have the right to screen the mayor’s nominees and interview them before voting whether to approve the appointment.

Most often, it’s more of a rubber stamp procedure with the county’s district commissioners generally spending more time discussing the makeup of boards and diversity than grilling the individual persons nominated by the mayor.

“Any boards we have, it needs to reflect the community,” Commissioner Elaine Lucas said during last month’s screening of appointments to the Tree Board. “We need to make that statement to whoever the new mayor is. We expect these boards to reflect the whole community and not leave anyone out.”

Sometimes, a funding source for an organization dictates requirements.

For instance, the Macon-Bibb County Transit Authority’s board must reflect the racial makeup of the area it serves, per Federal Transportation Administration regulations.

For the Macon-Bibb County Hospital Authority, Georgia law mandates the local governing authority submit a list of three names to fill a vacancy and the authority members vote on the nominees.

For the last several years, it’s been the authority’s practice to send a list of three suggested nominations to the mayor, who can make substitutions as Reichert did in 2017 and 2018 when he added his own name and another suggestion. Those substitutions were not selected.

Typically, the mayor sends back the same three names the hospital authority has suggested. If the authority rejects the first slate, they must choose from a second slate the county submits.

In recent months, commissioners have questioned Reichert’s selection process for coming up with nominees and indicated they would like more input.

Filling a vacancy on the Urban Development Authority was as simple as running into former Macon City Councilman Cole Thomason, Reichert said.

“I bumped into Cole when he was overseeing the installation of a new glass front on a building on Cotton Avenue,” Reichert told the Economic and Community Development Committee in February. “I think it would be great to get a business person’s perspective.”

In other instances, Reichert took commissioners’ suggestions and tapped graduates of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Macon program, County Manager Keith Moffett said.

Commissioners want input 

Commissioners Lucas and Al Tillman want more involvement in the selection process.

“All of us here, we need to be making some suggestions to these boards,” Lucas said when Thomason’s UDA nomination came up for a vote.

“We have all given a list of names before,” Tillman said. “There are folks l’ve talked to who would like to serve. As a combined government now, we make all the appointments and when I’m gone I would like to have some folks on there that will do right.”

In March, commissioners balked at the slate of 10 nominees Reichert proposed for multiple boards and suggested a moratorium on administrative appointments.

“Table all appointments until we have further discussions,” Tillman suggested. “If we’re not going to be part of the process I just don’t think we need to go forward.”

Lucas suggested asking the state legislative delegation to revisit the charter that “gives just about absolute authority to the mayor,” she said.

The meeting ended with all 10 people being approved by the committee which recommended approval to the full commission. No moratorium was enacted.

When creating the Friends of Rosa Parks Square Board early last year, Tillman specified that the mayor pro tem, a position he currently holds, would be responsible for appointments to that body, which is looking for ways to fund enhancements to the public square across from Government Center, set its mission and plan for future maintenance.

Of the dozen friends of the park, one will be the chairman of the Facilities and Engineering Committee or a designee and the rest will be appointed by the mayor pro tem, who is elected by other members of the commission.

Board terms are typically staggered so that the entire organization does not turn over at the same time.

In the recent reconstitution of the Construction Board of Appeals, the initial members’ terms varied from about 6 months to nearly 4 years so that they would not all rotate off together.

Commissioner Valerie Wynn wants the courtesy of knowing when the mayor is looking to fill vacancies.

“I would have input if we knew,” Wynn said. “We don’t get to have a say-so in this and that’s part of the problem.”

The county has a spreadsheet with the names of nearly 400 people who serve on local boards and authorities. Many of them serve at the pleasure of the mayor and will likely remain on the various boards until the end of their terms even as the next administration takes over.

A copy of the spreadsheet obtained by the Center for Collaborative Journalism shows a column dedicated to when appointments expire, but more than 80 of those were either overdue or the list has not been updated as members were reappointed. Some of the board terms on the document expired years ago.

Tracking the timeline for each person’s tenure is not easy, nor is researching each board and its role. The task is even difficult for staff and elected officials.

Clerk of the Macon-Bibb County Commission Janice Ross discovered in her office a large binder left by a predecessor. The book was loaded with by-laws and other information about the county’s boards and organizations. It, too, was woefully outdated.

The next mayor will not only have to compile his own staff and evaluate whether to change department heads but must begin identifying candidates to serve on his behalf on all these boards and authorities.

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or fabian_lj@mercer.edu.

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