Movements for Consolidation
The idea of consolidation had been in citizens’ minds for some time, no doubt due to the small size of the county, the area’s rapid growth, and number of services already jointly run or contracted between the city and the county. In 1955, the school systems of the city of Athens and Clarke County were consolidated.
The first movement for consolidating the governments of Athens and Clarke County began in the mid-sixties. The voters of Athens-Clarke County passed a local constitutional amendment in 1966 that authorized the Georgia General Assembly to create a charter commission to study consolidation and to draft a charter for a consolidated government. In 1967, the General Assembly passed a local act that created the first Athens-Clarke County Charter Commission.
The first unification referendum was held on March 12, 1969, and required the passage of two separate counts: one count for the city of Athens and one for Clarke County (excluding Athens). The measure passed in the city with 59.8% support, but failed in the county with only 29.3% support.
A second consolidation attempt began with the passage of another local act of the General Assembly in 1971, authorized by the 1966 local constitutional amendment. A referendum for consolidation was held on May 24, 1972. Again, the city residents passed consolidation while the county residents opposed it. The levels of support and opposition had changed, however. In the 1972 vote, the city voted 52% in favor of consolidation compared with 60% in the 1969 vote. However, the county vote was 42% in support of consolidation compared with about 30% support in 1969.
Third & Fourth Attempts
In 1981, the General Assembly established a third charter commission based on the 1966 constitutional amendment. The charter commission held five public meetings to obtain citizen input for the charter and enlisted the help of a governmental consulting firm to aid in the charter writing process. The charter was very detailed and included a budget for the proposed consolidated government.
A referendum was held on February 16, 1982. Although support in the city and county had increased since the 1972 vote, the consolidation referendum failed again. While 55% of the city votes were for consolidation, only 45% of the county voters supported it.
A fourth movement for consolidation began in the late 1980s. In 1988, a citizen group entitled the Quality Growth Task Force formed to examine issues related to the future of Athens and Clarke County. This group formed an ad hoc committee entitled the Government Reorganization Committee to examine the issue of consolidation. In July of 1989, both the city council and the county commission approved a resolution to establish a fifteen-member charter commission. Five members were to be appointed by the citizen task force, five by the City Council, and five by the County Commission.
Unification The referendum for unification was held on August 7, 1990. Based on the amended Georgia Constitution, a revised voting rule was used which required two counts for passage of the referendum in Clarke County. One count was required for the city of Athens, and one count was required for the county as a whole including Athens. Previously, votes from Athens had not been counted in the total county vote. The city voted 58% in support of unification and the county 59% in favor of unification. This time, unification would have passed even under the old method (separate city and county votes). If the new voting rule had been used in the past three attempts, all three would have failed.
The new government would be run by a head elected official (now titled mayor) and 10 commissioners. With the passage of unification, Athens became the second consolidated government in Georgia and the 28th in the nation.