By David Pendered
The latest act in the civic theater that is Fulton County began Thursday in a crowded room on the fourth floor of Georgia’s Capitol.
Republican lawmakers sat quietly while an hour’s worth of speakers protested Republican proposals to change what has been the natural order of the county – at least, it was the natural order before Republicans took effective control of the county’s legislative delegation this year.
The chorus in this case could do little to relieve tension, but the 75 who gathered certainly helped establish the mood. There were few smiles among the crowd of lawyers and lobbyists, community advocates and union reps, preachers and seniors – many of whom are familiar faces at meetings of the county commission and Atlanta City Council.
Just about the only happy chorus member was a man who said he plans to be the state’s first black governor. He said he and Nathan Deal both come from humble origins, and his background trumps the governor’s because he was homeless when he arrived in Georgia in 2001.
At the meeting’s right-on-time conclusion, Rep. Lynne Riley (R-Johns Creek), who chairs the delegation, thanked everyone for coming. She promised the delegation would consider the concerns the speakers raised.
“We welcome the information we heard,” Riley said. “We welcome the additional information.”
It’s said that tragedies show man at his best; comedies show man at his worst. No matter which was the case at Thursday’s delegation meeting, the fact of the matter is that a new era has begun in the county’s political theater.
Neither Riley nor any other Fulton lawmaker gave any reason to think the three proposals submitted by Republicans will be altered. One Democratic state representative said another meeting will be scheduled to discuss the proposals. But the microphone wasn’t turned on, no one was taking notes, and Riley was exiting the room.
Next stop: A committee meeting to consider the ethics proposal introduced by House Speaker David Ralston. In a hallway after that meeting, some advocates of Common Cause of Georgia said they are optimistic the bill will be an improvement over the state’s current ethics laws.
The three proposals from the county’s Republican leadership include:
- Doubling the homestead exemption to $60,000 – House Bill 170 would put the plan before voters in November 2014; No fiscal note was attached, but county Chairman John Eaves said the county can’t afford to operate with that level of funding.
- Redistricting the board of commissioners – House Bill 171 would add a second seat in north Fulton; eliminate one countywide seat; toss two Democratic incumbents into the same district.
- Ending civil service protection for workers – House Bill 171 would allow workers to be fired, demoted or disciplined for any reason and without notice; end classified service protection for future workers.
Around two dozen speakers took the podium to explain why they opposed one or more of the proposals. Most were comfortable, as this wasn’t their first rodeo, and they were pleasant and respectful – many of them thanking the delegation for allowing public comment.
Joe Beasley, a civil rights advocate, took the podium to say that he’s become blunt now that he’s 75. His comments could be described in many ways, but conciliatory wasn’t one of them.
“It’s all about race,” Beasley said. “It’s all about cramming it down [our] throat. We need to refocus the conversation and what it’s really about – it’s about race, [it’s about] don’t let [African Americans] have any power.”
By the time Riley gaveled him out of order, Beasley was walking away from the podium and she remarked as he walked:
“I beg to differ. We’re not going to tolerate it.”