COVINGTON - Some local leaders are in step with the Georgia Municipal Association in opposing several proposed state bills that would impact local governments.
House Bill 228
House Bill 228, proposed by Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, would prohibit local government employees from using government computers, fax machines or email to promote or oppose legislation by the General Assembly. It would also prohibit employees from contacting members of the General Assembly or the governor to discuss the impact of pending legislation on local governments, unless the employee is registered as a lobbyist or unless information is requested directly by a member of the General Assembly.
For example, a city manager would not be able to contact a state representative to express concerns about the impact of a bill to local government or to get more information on the impact in order to report back to elected officials.
Amy Henderson, director of communications for the Georgia Municipal Association, said the association opposes the bill because employees often have expertise in specific areas that elected officials may not have.
"The water superintendent may know better and more detailed information about a bill that impacts the water system, for example," she said.
Henderson said she suspects the bill was prompted by the opposition of teachers to the constitutional amendment related to charter schools on the ballot last November.
"We're trying to work with Mark Hamilton to come up with language to make it OK for city employees to continue to be a resource," she said.
Local officials expressed opposition to the proposal as well.
"HB 228 is utterly ridiculous," said Conyers City Manager Tony Lucas. "When did a local government, contacting one of our representatives or our governor, become professional lobbying? It's respective governments conducting business for or on behalf of our citizens."
Porterdale Mayor Arline Chapman said she believes employees should use their own equipment, away from work, to express their personal opinions. But, "If a city employee is contacting a member of the General Assembly or governor in behalf of her government employer, expressing the opinion of that branch of government and not the personal opinion of the government official, that would be a different circumstance. I see a correspondence in favor or opposition of legislation as entirely different from a full scale lobbying initiative, having witnessed both," she said.
House Bill 228 is currently in the House Governmental Affairs Committee.
House Bill 282
Also proposed by Hamilton, this bill would limit local governments' ability to build digital networks. House Bill 282 would require a city or county to get permission from the Public Service Commission to provide broadband service. The PSC could grant permission only if it determines an area is unserved. Inadequate service by an existing provider would not be sufficient to grant local governments the opportunity to provide the service, according to GMA. Governments currently providing broadband service would be grandfathered, but would not be allowed to expand services beyond the existing customer base unless there is no service provided in that area by the private sector.
Henderson said cities see this as an issue of economic development and local control.
"Their motive is very different from private industry," she said, noting that for local governments, providing such services is about having the infrastructure to attract industries and businesses.
The bill passed out of subcommittee to full committee Thursday afternoon.
House Bill 176
Proposed by Rep. Don Parsons, R-Marietta, the bill would "allow cell towers to be placed anywhere in a community with very limited public input," Henderson said. Local governments could not limit the height of cell towers or recommend alternative locations for siting of cell towers. The bill would also prohibit local governments from ensuring abandoned towers are removed.
The bill would require that a new cell tower be automatically approved if a local government fails to act on an application within 150 days.
Henderson said the mobile phone industry claims the bill is an effort to streamline the application process.
"Dictatorship is just streamlined government," she said. "It doesn't necessarily mean it's in the best interest of the public."
The Rules Committee on Thursday recommitted HB 176 back to the House Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee for changes, and it was set to be heard Thursday afternoon. If passed, the bill will go back to the Rules Committee.
Lucas said the city of Conyers is opposed to the broadband and cell tower bills.
"Either attempts to weaken or take away home rule when attempting to govern our own city," Lucas said. "In Conyers, we have a strong reputation for supporting cell tower needs, but with the appropriate zoning, location and community support. This decision needs to remain with local government."
Lucas noted the city of Conyers has multiple locations where it provides free internet service to the public, such as the majority of Olde Town, in and around City Hall and, for economic and tourism support, at the Georgia International Horse Park as well as Cherokee Run.
The Association County Commissioners of Georgia is opposed to House Bill 176 but has not taken a stance on the other two, said Spokeswoman Beth Brown.
Rockdale County Chairman Richard Oden "is working with ACCG and (the Atlanta Regional Commission) on the potential impact of the bills. Chairman Oden does not have any comments regarding HB 176, HB 282 and HB 228 at this time because these bills are fluid and subject to change at any time," said Executive Assistant Katrina Holloway.
But Newborn Mayor Roger Sheridan made his stance clear."My opinion of it is it's a bunch of nonsense," he said.
"This is not the way to treat the cities and the counties that elect these legislators. They are trying to take away our prerogative and we don't like it," he added.