A bill to give the Brookhaven mayor the right to serve in an extra term in office extra failed to pass in the General Assembly this year due to last-minute changes that would require a referendum to decide the matter. The bill is expected to be taken up again next year.
The General Assembly did approve two bills to provide tax relief to Brookhaven homeowners.
State Rep. Matthew Wilson (D-Brookhaven) sponsored House Bill 695, which would have amended the city’s charter to give the mayor the ability to serve three consecutive terms. Currently the mayor can serve two consecutive four-year terms.
The city’s charter review commission recommended in 2017 that the mayor’s term limits be extended, a move that requires the state legislature’s approval. The commission had also recommended City Council members be limited to three terms; currently their terms are unlimited.
Cities are required by the state to review their charters by the state every five years. This was Brookhaven’s first charter review since incorporation in 2012.
The reason for the change to term limits was to encourage people to run for office, according to a report from the charter review commission. By implementing equal term limits for all elected offices, residents would not be intimidated by the advantages of an incumbency to run for office, according to the report.
The City Council accepted the report but chose this year not to take up council term limits, instead agreeing to OK an extra term for the mayor.
Wilson said he believed the bill was going to pass. On the last day of the session, however, the bill was altered by state Sens. Sally Harrell (D-Dunwoody) and Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) to require a referendum.
“The Senate made a change at the last minute … and there was just not enough time to vote on the change in the House on Sine Die,” Wilson said in an April 19 interview. The last day of the session was April 2.
Wilson said he was surprised the changes were made because the bill had been reviewed earlier in the session by the senators and appeared to be fine.
“I don’t oppose the referendum. I’m just sad we did not get that bill through this year,” Wilson said. He said he heard from four people opposed to the charter change, but also heard from many more who supported it.
Harrell said the reason to include a referendum is because the city is still very young.
“The original choice to have Brookhaven’s mayor limited to two terms was part of the original city charter, which was voted on by the people,” she said in a written statement. “Because Brookhaven is such a young city, I felt it was important for the people of Brookhaven to have a voice in the decision to lengthen the number of terms the mayor can serve.”
Mayor John Ernst, who is seeking his second term this year, said he does not oppose a referendum, but was also surprised such a change was made at the last minute. If the bill does eventually pass, Ernst will be eligible for a third term if he wins reelection. Currently, he faces no opposition.
Ernst also said the referendum language that was added to the bill also was incorrect in using the word “years” rather than “terms.” Time simply ran out to make any changes and get the bill’s changes approved in the House, Ernst said.
“It’s no big deal. We can take it up again next year,” Ernst said.
“Our number one priority this year was to lower taxes,” he added.
The legislature did pass HB 645 to increase homestead exemptions for Brookhaven homeowners from the current $20,000 to $40,000 by 2025.
HB 647 was also approved, providing additional exemptions for residents age 65 and older and those with disabilities who make less than $15,000 a year. The legislation increases a $14,000 exemption to jumps to $160,000 over the next five years, with an annual increase of $29,200.
Voters will decide on the homestead exemption in the Nov. 5 city election.