A True Original

Many politicians get elected to the Georgia General Assembly and do little besides occupy a chair on the House floor. A few, however, actually bring some original thought to the political process.

One such lawmaker was Kil Townsend, a New York-born, prep school-educated lawyer who moved to Atlanta after World War II and got himself elected to the House of Representatives in the mid-1960s as one of the first Republicans to represent Fulton County.

Townsend, who passed away Easter Sunday at the age of 89, was a tilter at windmills – forever brimming over with ideas for how to improve the way Georgia governed itself. Some of them were good, some of them were a little ahead of their time and some were just way out there. Being one of the few Republicans in a Legislature dominated by Democrats meant most of his ideas came to naught (or were appropriated by the other party).

While nominally a Repub-lican, Townsend was actually more of a “good government” type who was, in the context of the times, more progressive than most of the Democrats who served with him. Certainly, he would be out of place among the conservative ideologues and Christian fundamentalists who make up a big part of the Republican majority that runs things today.

Consider some of the positions Townsend took: He was pro-choice on abortion, he advocated the legalization of pari-mutuel wagering, he supported MARTA and he voted for early attempts to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. In today’s GOP, that would get him drummed out of the party ranks in record time.

Townsend also believed elected officials shouldn’t enrich themselves at the people’s expense, a radical thought that has never quite caught on among many of Georgia’s political leaders. Early in his legislative career, he sought the impeachment of two members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles who had been accused of selling paroles to prisoners.

When the state pension board made the decision to give appellate judge Kelley Quillian a $57,457 pension based on an outrageous claim of 44 months of unused vacation and sick leave, Townsend opposed it and declared eloquently: “Quillian has just raped us.”

You can rest assured that Townsend would have never stood by quietly while an amendment was slipped into a bill to grant the governor a $100,000 personal tax break.

His greatest idea was that Georgia was saddled with far too many county and city governments. Townsend wanted to reduce that unwieldy mess of 159 counties to a more manageable number that ranged from 87 to 111 counties. This made a lot of sense, especially when you consider the dozens of counties that have but a few thousand residents, an impoverished tax base and the inability to provide a decent level of services to their taxpayers.

Townsend held a series of public hearings across the state in the mid-1980s trying to drum up support for a constitutional amendment to consolidate local governments; but with so many political fiefdoms at stake, his idea went nowhere. When Rep. Bob Hanner (who’s still a member of the Legislature) discovered that his home county would be absorbed into an adjoining county, he remarked, “I like you, Kil, but I’m not for you on this one.”

“Every legislator came up to me, and said ‘You are absolutely right, but I’m not voting for it,’” Townsend recalled later. “We had a rough time.”

Today, the members of Townsend’s own party have veered 180 degrees from his visionary position, voting in recent sessions to create even more cities and working to undo the one county consolidation that actually took place back when Fulton County absorbed Milton and Campbell counties.

No matter. It’s still a good idea to cut the number of counties and someday our legislators may be wise enough to realize it.

The bulletin board in Townsend’s capitol office displayed a small sign that read: “Now and then an innocent man is sent to the Legislature.”

Kil was one of those political innocents, I guess, forever putting his ideas out there for a world that wasn’t quite ready to hear them. He may be gone, but we’ll always have a need for people like him in the political arena.

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