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In the early morning hours of Thursday, March 30, the Georgia General Assembly wrapped the 2023 session. As usual, legislators accomplished some of what they wanted, left a few bills on the table for next year, and compromised on others.
Legislators passed a $384 billion budget as well as bills on raising truck weights, prosecutor oversight, transgender issues, and gang-related sentencing guidelines. While those bills made the headlines, there were others that flew under the radar – bills that are a little off the beaten path and don’t invoke the talking points of the day.
One such bill is House Bill 7811, or, as it’s more properly known, the House Attendance Funding Decree. HB 7811 is an unusual piece of legislation; it has among its ordinances guidelines that provide some checks and balances on local governments. Typically, the General Assembly shies away from getting involved in local politics. However, supporters of the bill state that given some issues that have popped up on local commissions and councils over the last few years, it was time to right the ship, so to speak.
The two biggest provisions in the bill set attendance criteria for local elected officials and limits on how much officials can spend on meals and other incidentals while on official government trips. It’s a little-known fact that most city and county charters do not set any kind of attendance requirements for local officials. Once elected, nothing except a sense of duty to constituents requires that commissioners or board members attend meetings. Elected positions are always paid so what happens in many cases is officials collect a check from the municipality even though they do not attend meetings.
HB 7811 corrects that by requiring that all elected officials attend 75 percent a given board’s meetings/functions in order to collect payment for their service. The responsibility for taking attendance at meetings will fall upon the secretary for the meeting – the city clerk, county clerk, etc. After each meeting, the clerks or other designated officer will submit the attendance reports to the Secretary of State’s office where the reports will be entered into a database. If the database shows an official isn’t attending enough meetings, the Secretary of State will notify the municipality or governing body, which will then take appropriate action. If attendance reports are falsified, the person responsible could face up to five years in prison. Any elected official taking payment for meetings not attended would at the very least have to reimburse the agency and could face jail time as well.
The other major guideline of the bill sets firm per diems for officials who travel on official government business. Currently, there are suggested per diem rates but it’s really up to the local governments to decide how to enforce/enact those rates. The bill lists the per diems according to population by county. Coffee County’s rate (which also applies to Douglas, Ambrose, Broxton, and Nicholls) is $105 ($20 for breakfast, $35 for lunch, $50 for dinner). Likewise, family members who accompany officials on trips must pay for their own meals. Penalties for violating this section start with a warning and reimbursement and progress from there, up to and including jail time.
HB 7811 also contains language that provides oversight of the local bid process; steps for removing officials from office who have been charged with serious misdemeanors or felonies; the disposal, sale, or transfer of government assets from one department or agency to another; conflicts of interest involving elected officials; and overreach by elected officials.
“Over the last several years, we have been monitoring the operation of our local elected officials and governments and we’ve noticed a few problems. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, some of governments and agencies have been a little cavalier in their operations. We feel that HB 7811 will help our local governments re-focus on their constituents and tighten their operations. We are not out to criminalize anyone. We are simply here to ensure that our officials conduct themselves lawfully and our local governments run as efficiently as possible,” stated John Hughes, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office.
“While it is unusual for members of the General Assembly and the Governor’s Office to pass legislation that deals directly with local governments, both Gov. Kemp and lawmakers in both houses believe that this bill is necessary to ensure that Georgia remains the best state in the country in which to live and do business. We also believe that our elected officials should set a standard for integrity, honesty, and service. HB 7811 demonstrates both the Governor’s and the State Legislature’s commitment to those ideals,” says Donnie Marcello, a local government liaison in Gov. Kemp’s office.
HB 7811 overwhelmingly passed in both the House and the Senate. It’s on Gov. Kemp’s desk awaiting his signature. Once signed, it will go into effect on July 1, 2023.
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