GA: Campaign Incident Leads to Proposed Policy

July 28--An attorney for the Macon Transit Authority is in the process of drawing up a new policy that would restrict political campaigning at Terminal Station after a July 19 incident between a volunteer for mayoral candidate C. Jack Ellis and Rick Jones, the MTA's general manager.

MTA attorney Brad Wilson said Wednesday he is researching what steps need to be taken to post signs at Terminal Station and on city buses that would restrict political campaigning.

Craig Ross, vice president of the MTA's board, said Wednesday the proposed policy stems from a primary election day incident when an unidentified Ellis volunteer, who was at the bus depot with Ellis and other volunteers, allegedly threatened Jones' job if he didn't support Ellis.

Jones said he felt "threatened" when the campaign volunteer -- who remains unidentified -- addressed him and MTA Chief Operating Officer Clarita Smith after trying to hand Jones an Ellis campaign flier.

"(The volunteer) threatened my job," Jones said. "He said, 'If you don't support this man, you will be out of a job tomorrow.' "

Video of the incident, which contains no audio, shows the volunteer, who was wearing an Ellis campaign T-shirt, attempting to hand Jones a flier. In the video, Jones is seen trying to give the flier back to the volunteer. The volunteer then said something to Jones and Smith, turned to walk away, then said something else, the video shows.

A couple of minutes later, the video shows Jones and Smith talking with Ellis in the bus depot lobby. At one point, Jones points to the campaign volunteer, who was standing outside. Jones said Ellis told him that the man was a volunteer and that Ellis didn't share his opinion about Jones' job security.

Jones said Ellis didn't offer an apology.

Asked about the incident Wednesday, Ellis said he considers the incident overblown.

"I'm focusing on transportation issues," Ellis said. "This is a non-issue."

The relationship between Ellis and the MTA has been strained ever since Ellis called a news conference a couple of weeks ago at Terminal Station, when he said he wanted to increase fares, add Sunday bus service and build bus shelters at every stop.

Ellis said Wednesday that he thinks the MTA is trying to get back at him for positions he took at his news conference.

"Rick Jones needs to stay out of politics," Ellis said. "Maybe this has something to do with the negative comments about my plans for Sunday bus routes and shelters."

Ross said Ellis made his comments about how he wanted to expand the MTA services and increase the fares without consulting either the MTA staff or board. Ellis and his staff also showed up at the bus depot on the day of the primary to hand out campaign materials without first asking for the authority's approval, Ross said.

Ross also noted that former mayoral candidate Paul Bronson asked permission from transit authority officials a few weeks ago to campaign at Terminal Station. When officials checked with the Georgia Department of Transportation, the state agency told the MTA not to allow any campaigning, saying it could jeopardize federal funding. Ross said Bronson was fine with the decision.

"(Bronson) had the courtesy to call us," Ross said.

Ross said Ellis' bus service proposals are impractical. Ross said the fare increase wouldn't mean a substantial rise in revenue and likely would lead to lower ridership. Ross also said the MTA doesn't have the money to build shelters at every stop, nor can it run Sunday routes.

"We've asked many mayors, including Jack, about (Sunday routes)," Ross said. "We need extra funds. It would cost an extra $300,000 (annually) to add the one-day service. Even with that, it would be a limited service. There's no federal funds for operations like that."

Ross said the MTA wants to maintain a good relationship with whomever is elected mayor in the Aug. 16 runoff between Ellis and Macon Mayor Robert Reichert.

"We're trying to work with everybody," he said. "We don't want to be involved with politics. When Ellis was mayor the first time, we had a good relationship, and we have a good relationship with Reichert."

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

Copyright 2011 - The Macon Telegraph, Ga.