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Local legislation makes progress

By Justin Reedy

After partisan disputes held up many pieces of local legislation through much of the Georgia General Assembly's 40-day session, some of those bills have started making progress towards becoming law.

A bill that would create a full-time elections board in Clayton County passed the state House on Thursday and is awaiting the governor's signature, while a bill that would require a special election for the vacancy on the county school board is nearing approval.

"It was a good day for Clayton County down at the capitol," said state Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro.

The elections bill would switch duties of running elections in this county from Probate Court Judge Eugene Lawson to a full-time election superintendent and an appointed elections board. That bill, which was introduced in the state Senate and passed there earlier in this session, gained approval of the House Thursday, Buckner said, and should be signed by Gov. Sonny Perdue soon.

The switch to a full-time superintendent has been discussed for several years because of the county's growing population, but was put off because of the cost involved. Local officials say the time has come to make that change despite the cost of funding a full-time superintendent.

"We're one of the few Georgia counties with a large population without a local elections board," Buckner said.

In counties without a full-time superintendent handling local elections, state law requires that the county's probate court judge act as elections superintendent. But with Clayton County's population growing past 230,000 people in recent years, Lawson has struggled to split his time between his probate judge duties and preparing for elections.

"Elections in a county the size of Clayton County are a full-time job, for not only the superintendent but also his staff," Lawson said.

Another bill dealing with Clayton County elections has started progressing through the House after gaining Senate approval recently. That bill would require that any vacancies on the Clayton County Board of Education with more than 180 days be filled by a special election.

Since no local law dealing with school board vacancies exist, Clayton County follows the generic state law regarding such situations, which requires special elections only when more than two years and three months are left in the school board term. Otherwise, the seat is filled by someone appointed by the board.

The new law would apply to a current vacancy on the school board, Buckner said, as long as it takes effect before the board appoints someone to fill that seat. That bill was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Valencia Seay, D-College Park, and Terrell Starr, D-Jonesboro, and has now moved over to the House. It should get its second reading next Tuesday, Buckner said, and could be approved that Thursday, the last day of the session.

"This bill is critically important," Buckner said. "The citizens have made clear their wishes to vote for the District 8 school board seat."

The school board was set to appoint a new District 8 representative at its meeting earlier this week, but the measure was tabled until a later date.

Another piece of local legislation has been approved by both chambers of the General Assembly and awaits the signature of Gov. Perdue. That bill would update the charter for the city of Morrow, which was originally approved in 1945 and hasn't been updated since the 1970s.

"The charter we have now is based on outdated laws," said Morrow City Manager John Lampl. "This new charter is the model charter drawn up by the Georgia Municipal Association."

The city began working with GMA on the charter last October, Lampl said, and got help from state Rep. Ron Dodson, D-Lake City, as well as the rest of the local delegation. Once approved by the governor will require U.S. Justice Department approval because of Voting Rights Act requirements, Lampl said, and then it should take effect sometime this fall.

Most of the changes are just to bring the charter in line with more current state laws, such as those dealing with when elections may be held. Other changes include taking powers implied by the earlier charter but codified by local ordinances and spell them out more explicitly in the new charter.

"We're extremely thankful for the legislative delegation for helping us get this passed," Lampl said.

Clayton County's legislative delegation had a busy day on Thursday in dealing with things other than local legislation, Buckner said. Members of the delegation have taken the lead on speaking out against GOP requests for a special session, since only two days remain in the current 40-day session.

"We want to finish this (Fiscal Year 2004) budget and go back and worry about constituent services at home," said Buckner, the chairwoman of the local delegation. "We do not want to come back for a special session, which costs the state about $55,000 per day. We think that's ludicrous."

Republican leaders in the Senate have called for a special session, Buckner said, because they hope to get redistricting legislation passed to favor GOP candidates.

In other business, the legislature also recognized and honored the Jonesboro High School Mock Trial Team, which won the state championship recently and will be representing Georgia in the national mock trial competition next month.