published Friday, April 15th, 2011

Merger panel to get 1st members soon

DALTON, Ga. — City leaders hope to begin appointing members as soon as next week to a committee studying Dalton/Whitfield County consolidation now that Georgia lawmakers have passed a local bill to create the panel.

Gov. Nathan Deal must sign the bill before it becomes law.

“I hope to appoint two City Council members on Monday night,” Dalton Mayor David Pennington said Thursday. “I’m checking to see if it is possible to have the governor sign it before then.”

County Commission Chairman Mike Babb said he does not know when the county would meet to appoint committee members.

The Georgia Senate passed the bill that establishes the Dalton-Whitfield County Charter and Consolidation Commission on Tuesday. The House passed it March 31.

The bill authorizes appointments to the commission, gives it permission to study all matters relating to the governments of Whitfield and Dalton, to write a countywide government charter and to oversee the referendum and election of a new governing body.

The bill sets a deadline to do research and file a new countywide charter of April 30, 2012. Officials hope to place a referendum on the ballot in November 2012.

The 15 committee members must be appointed within 45 days after the bill takes effect. Pennington will appoint two City Council members, while county officials will appoint Babb and another county commissioner, according to the bill.

City and county leaders also will appoint four members each who are not elected officials or government employees.

Neither government will have a shortage of people from whom to chose — more than 140 people have signed up to serve on the committee, according to city and county officials.

County Clerk Samantha Bearden said Thursday that officials had not yet cross-referenced the city and county lists or determined if all the people are eligible.

To be eligible, a person must be 21, have lived in Georgia five years and been registered to vote for three years.

Officials from Tunnel Hill, Varnell and Cohutta also may appoint members. If they choose not to, committee members will fill the positions by a majority vote.

The bill states that a new charter may abolish, modify or merge public offices or positions except as prohibited by the Constitution or law. It may not affect the status of the Whitfield County or Dalton City School systems or their boards of education; diminish pensions for existing employees; or abolish the offices of sheriff, clerk of Superior Court, judge of Probate Court, chief magistrate or tax commissioner.

Both state houses passed bills earlier to ensure that the Dalton City School system would not be affected by a new charter, an issue that had threatened to halt consolidation earlier this year.

Local leaders have said they are exploring the possibility of consolidating some departments before any consolidation vote.

A consultant who studied the possibility of merging city and county fire departments is expected to meet with officials Tuesday to provide information.

about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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