Dispatches from government reporter Johnny Edwards

Attack on media just nonsense

After reading General Counsel Chiquita Johnson’s proposal to clamp down on the news media at Augusta Commission meetings, I had one question:

What are they smoking over there in the Law Department?

In a resolution that assumes neither the Georgia Open Meetings Act nor the First Amendment carries weight anymore, Ms. Johnson is looking to ban reporters from talking to elected officials in chambers or in the hallway and to restrict the number of news cameras in the room, as if every commission meeting were an O.J. Simpson trial.

The resolution would have come up at Monday’s Legal Administration Committee meeting, but there was no quorum. So it goes to the full commission Tuesday with no recommendation.

Ms. Johnson won’t call me back, but I can only assume this is her idea. I can’t find any commissioner saying reporters cause so much distraction that they need to get a room, specifically a “media room” with a live feed of the meeting. Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson says that part of the plan is legal as long as sitting in there is optional, but what sane journalists would choose to have a wall between them and the politicos they’re covering?

And the part about interviews only being allowed in this press room – that part is illegal unless the commission wants to ban all conversation in chambers and by the elevators, Mr. Hudson said.

If the cramped committee space really poses a fire hazard and television cameras block access for disabled people, as Ms. Johnson’s resolution asserts, why not just move everything into the big room?

Someone should have put a stop to this draconian nonsense when she took total control of all open records requests. Her assault on open meetings won’t be the end of it.

There's a greater power grab in the works, one that involves a charter change and would set her up as a virtual czar with police powers and power to launch investigations into any city department, authority or contractor doing business with the city. This came up briefly in Monday’s Administrative Services Committee, under some indiscernible guise, but none of the commissioners understood what they were voting on. On a suggestion from J.R. Hatney, they voted unanimously to have Ms. Johnson explain it to them in pairs. No sense in doing these things in public, I suppose.

Courts reporter Sandy Hodson and I couldn’t understand what we were reading either, so she e-mailed copies to some attorneys, who reacted with shock and awe.

“This is going to make her untouchable,” one attorney said, “and make everyone else touchable by her.”

And, while no commissioner has asked for a change in the charter, she’s been paying an Atlanta attorney $250 an hour to help rewrite the city’s laws. Maybe that’s why “Charter of the City of Atlanta” was written in the proposal at one point when it should have said Augusta.

If commissioners are seriously considering vesting her with “peace officer” authority, I hope they’ll consider her work history more so than they did when they hired her. As Ms. Hodson and I found out through an open records request, three years ago Ms. Johnson was fired from a job in the Georgia Department of Public Safety’s Legal Services Division over unauthorized expenses on an American Express corporate card.

According to an assistant comptroller’s memorandum, there were charges to the Home Shopping Network, purchases of jewelry, beauty products, prescription drugs and groceries, and she didn’t keep up with the payments.

From what I’m hearing, she could soon lose another government job, and it won’t be because of six white votes.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

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eachoneteachone
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eachoneteachone 12/12/09 - 02:03 am
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Ms. Johnson needs to go.

Ms. Johnson needs to go.

JacquesUlar
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JacquesUlar 12/12/09 - 06:18 am
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Johnny, you rock, dude. Keep

Johnny, you rock, dude. Keep up the pressure! The city of Augusta thanks you.

getalife
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getalife 12/12/09 - 09:43 am
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Keep up the pressure, this

Keep up the pressure, this woman needs to be terminated and quick!  Have the commissioners or Ms. Banana commented on the previous job loss, if so what have they said.   It looks as if they failed to really check out her record before they hired her!!

Taylor B
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Taylor B 12/12/09 - 09:52 am
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So, I wonder how much money

So, I wonder how much money it will cost us to get rid of her. I bet she has had "glowing performance reviews." Could this end up being another "theresa smith" type situation?

scott-hudson
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scott-hudson 12/12/09 - 10:28 am
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Coo-coo...Coo-coo...Coo-coo..

Coo-coo...Coo-coo...Coo-coo...Chiquita Johnson is nuts. But please commissioners, don't fire her, I love being able to use my circus music on the air!!! And Johnny, if the media thing passes (which it won't) which one of us is going to get arrested first for violating the ordinance? It could be a fun game! Our mugshots could be in the Jail Report!! We would be famous!!!

Just Asking
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Just Asking 12/12/09 - 10:41 am
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Why can't our city leaders

Why can't our city leaders investigate and vet candidates before hiring them for such an important position. Kudos to the chronicle staff for doing the leg work that should have been done years ago. And since when does the attorney have the audqacity to right laws without being asked -- isn't it the commission's job to propose new powers for employees?

StillaGOP
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StillaGOP 12/12/09 - 11:15 am
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Looks like the position and


Looks like the position and power has gone to her head, this individual need to understand she is our (the taxpayer's) employee and we have a right to know what's going on.  Of course the media should show care in how they conduct themselves in these meeting also.

Johnny Edwards
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Johnny Edwards 12/12/09 - 11:33 am
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I'll take you up on that

I'll take you up on that race, Scott. The same goes for the next time the Augusta Mall wants to boot us from the property.

CorporalGripweed
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CorporalGripweed 12/12/09 - 12:14 pm
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Great work Johnny, I agree

Great work Johnny, I agree with Scott. Every time her name gets mentioned I immediately hear "circus music".And Taylor, you may be on to something. Maybe she is TRYING to get fired so she can claim "unfair termination" or some other asinine excuse to bilk the city out of a few hundred grand ala Ms. Smith. Makes you wonder.

Brad Owens
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Brad Owens 12/12/09 - 02:49 pm
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Johnny, do you guys need

Johnny, do you guys need someone to sue them? I think Matt Aitken should be just the vote we need to get rid of this idiot. Also, why don't we just hire back Steve Shepard? He was cheaper and a REAL attorney.

imdstuf
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imdstuf 12/12/09 - 02:56 pm
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The media should not be

The media should not be locked out of things, but I do think its a double standard to have the Augusta Chronicle report and try to influence things that affect other business ventures of The Morris Group.  They have long since pushed the agenda for Billy.

Taylor B
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Taylor B 12/12/09 - 04:53 pm
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Imd, you have to have

Imd, you have to have standards to have double standards, and Mrs. Johnson seems to be lacking. I guess deflection with media bias accusations is your tool of choice. Here's the deal with high ranking city employees compared to say, a job at a local VW dealership. I have had glowing performance reviews ever since I have been employed. If I make a silly mistake, like leave an oil plug out of a $90,000 Audi A8 and cause a $20k motor to lock, I'm done for, fair or not. That is called accountability, and is lacking around here. I bet if city employees were treated the same way, we would have a lot less locked up motors in local government.

Emerydan
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Emerydan 12/12/09 - 06:24 pm
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The banana is incomepetent

The banana is incomepetent and needs to go, period. And the revelations that she was fired from her previous job for credit card fraud begs the question of why she was hired in the first place? Does this county do no background checks at all? Who is responsible for vetting these people? I say they need to go too. And while we're at it, I say we need to get rid of Fred Russell. The man is incompetent as well, and has cost this city far too much money for what he's worth. So get rid of The Banana and "What me Worry?" Fred. For one thing it will demonstrate that the new majority white commission will not just be targetting incompetent employees and department heads who just happen to be black. So let's get a real city attorney (I nominate Joe Neal, Jr!) and a real city administrator... someone who won't be a yesman for every pet project of each commissioner. Then let's give that administrator some authority and autonomy. The votes are there now to get quality people in these positions. Let's do it.

baronvonreich
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baronvonreich 12/12/09 - 08:19 pm
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Thanks for keeping the

Thanks for keeping the public informed on these matters. I can't believe The Banana was hired to begin with due to her background and lack of credentials.

Taylor B
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Taylor B 12/12/09 - 11:41 pm
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I'd like to draft Anthony

I'd like to draft Anthony Esposito as city attorney. Can I get a second on that motion?

suspicious1
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suspicious1 12/13/09 - 12:46 am
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Stay on it Johnny.  I hope

Stay on it Johnny.  I hope the Chronicle keeps your columns permanently.  We've got to have real watch dogs who have credibility.  I have it on good authority that you won't have to worry about being arrested. 

thewiz0oz
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thewiz0oz 12/13/09 - 03:19 am
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Once again we see what

Once again we see what happens under a race-based city administration -- when the City Administrator is removed from having control over the performance of city employees & the department heads report to ten elected non-professional administrators -- the Commission -- we end up with skin-toned managers -- CHANGE THE CONSOLIDATION CHARTER --when two or more people are responsible for the same task then no one is responsible --Chiquita is what you get when no standards are in place & employment is race based-- we need reform of our government and a zero-based approach to employment & budgeting -- start with a clean sheet of paper and create jobs based on need & salaries based on documented experience -- the savings could pay for the Laney-Walker commitment.

KingJames
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KingJames 12/14/09 - 12:33 pm
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The entire thing about

The entire thing about members of the media and their equipment being a hazard to those with disabilities can be solved by having an expert such as a fire marshall come by during a commission meeting to observe and give his opinion.  Fire marshalls are the ones who tell us when unsafe conditions exists due to large crowds of people in a building.  They should be able to determine if the abundance of journalists is a danger to those with disabilities.  If they don't find there is a problem, then Ms. Johnson will need to find some other excuse to get rid of or limit the media. 

My only question now is why did it take so long to find out about Ms. Johnson's termination from her previous government job?  I've been reading about her in the Chronicle online for a long time.  Though I agree that this information should have been known earlier, to just now find out about it and then eagerly blog about it right after she appears to not want members of the media around seems like Johnny Edwards and Sandy Hodson are not just reporting news, but are trying to make some so that the commission will have a reason to fire Ms. Johnson.   With everything that has gone on, I don't think she is the right person for the job, but Johnny, your timing for blogging about her previous termination is suspect.  It makes it seem like you're being vindictive.  'If Chiquita won't let me do my job, then I'll blog about her last job and get her fired!'  Come on man, you should have found this story a long time ago. 

On a side note, I hoped that because Matt Aitken was elected, you would stop reporting about race on the commission.  You don't have to bring up race anymore. The very last sentence of the blog could have been left out.  I view Mr. Aitken's election as a chance for Augusta to progress to a bright and refreshing future.   Six white votes doesn't guarantee the commission will operate any better than it has in the past, though I can't see how it could be any worse.  You are assuming they will always vote the same way.  That's not going to always be the case.  Johnny, I really wasn't expecting that last sentence, and I'm disappointed that you would write it now that there isn't a racially split commission anymore.

Brad Owens
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Brad Owens 12/14/09 - 01:05 pm
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Whatever! This commission

Whatever! This commission has been racial every since the "six votes needed to pass anything-five/five race split" was put in. Maybe we should base the choices on waht people do, and it seems this night-school attorney has outlived her usefulness to the tax payer.

flipa1
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flipa1 12/14/09 - 01:26 pm
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The Banana is making a

The Banana is making a laughing stock of all REAL Attorneys. Rehire Steve Shepherd, FIRE the Banana and disbar her for discracing the Ga State Bar for handing her a licence to begin with. The Credit Card Fraud case needs to be reported to the Ga State Bar now and her licence lifted NOW.

She is one more example of your taxes being used to hurt U.S. Join the National Taxpayers Union. Redirect your taxes from being used against U.S. by The Banana as now, back to being used for U.S. as claimed. www.NTU.org

Johnny Edwards
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Johnny Edwards 12/14/09 - 01:24 pm
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First of all, KingJames, I'm

First of all, KingJames, I'm not worried about Ms. Johnson not letting me do my job. I'll be shocked if this proposal gets any traction. And do you not recall all the talk before the runoff, when some members of the community were saying that controversial department heads would be at risk if the commission balance tipped 6-4? You think we should just not talk about that anymore? What I'm saying is that it's not just white commissioners questioning her abilities now, and that should be good news for those who want to see an end to race-based voting.

And at what point would it be the correct time to bring up her firing? At what point would you be satisfied that we're not "being vindictive"? Under your philosophy, we would be hamstrung from ever reporting these things at all. Our job is to get facts to the public when we're satisfied that they're accurate, and when they're relevant. Is there anyone else out there who would rather this have been kept hush hush, all so KingJames won't think it's "suspect"?

Bottom line, Ms. Johnson's lack of understanding of the law in proposing this media resolution raises questions about her competency. Meanwhile, she's proposing she be granted a slew of new powers. This is as good of a time as any to bring up questions about her past work history.

KingJames
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KingJames 12/14/09 - 02:23 pm
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Johnny, timing is

Johnny, timing is everything.  Why not do a separate piece on Ms. Johnson's past work history?  I think her being fired is very important.  It should have been a front page story, and not buried away in your blog right after you expressed yourself about her attempting to limit media access to commission meetings.  I think her proposal is dead wrong.  I think you need to get her work history out of your blog, at least for now, and onto the front page in a story that doesn't seem biased.  Just the facts, please.  However you intended to present your findings about Ms. Johnson's past termination changed when you grouped it with her current questionable practices.  It's a big story that you should have reported.  Blog about it after you've gotten the big headline and when it's common knowledge to readers.  Otherwise, you do appear vindictive and way too involved with digging up dirt on Ms. Johnson.  If you are satisfied that your findings are accurate, then plaster the story all over the front page where it really belongs.

As far as race goes, I would like to see a time when you don't feel you have to say anything about black or white commissioners.  I would really love to hear you refer to them simply as commissioners.  If you know there is a mix of black and white commissioners who think Ms. Johnson's performance is bad, then just say so, but without bringing race into it.  Feelings of racial discord run long and deep in Augusta.  None of that will ever change if people continue to read about it everyday.  News outlets in other cities report on their local governments without mentioning commission/council racial makeup in every story because it's not important.  That doesn't appear to be the case here.  The whole "5-5 along racial lines" thing is over thanks to Matt Aitken.  I'd really like to see local government coverage without mentioning race.  There really is no reason for it now.

Johnny Edwards
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Johnny Edwards 12/14/09 - 02:43 pm
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I agree with much of what

I agree with much of what you just said, KingJames. I would love to be able to get through reporting on meetings without ever having to write "white commissioner" or "black commissioner." I tried to do that when I first took over this beat, but it became impossible, especially after the TEE center thing started. Let's both hope for a better 2010.

KingJames
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KingJames 12/14/09 - 02:52 pm
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I'm glad to know we agree on

I'm glad to know we agree on something, and I'm looking forward to a better 2010 as well.  What about that headline on Ms. Johnson's corporate AMEX charges for personal use?  There are a lot of people who read the paper, but not your blog.  That credit card stuff from her last job needs to be out front.  That's the story I want to see.  The followup to it should be how did something like this slip through the cracks when they hired her in the first place.

Johnny Edwards
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Johnny Edwards 12/14/09 - 03:04 pm
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How shall I put this

How shall I put this KingJames ... I'm not at liberty to discuss an ongoing investigation. There's a much bigger picture to all this. Patience.

KingJames
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KingJames 12/14/09 - 03:46 pm
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So then mentioning it in

So then mentioning it in your blog was just a teaser.  I'm looking forward to the rest of the story.  This seems like it'll be a big one.

 

1of the frontrowgang
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1of the frontrowgang 12/14/09 - 04:09 pm
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She was appointed to satisfy

She was appointed to satisfy the BLACK commissioners. She is not qualified to do the job. PUT IT OUT FOR BID.

Emerydan
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Emerydan 12/14/09 - 05:12 pm
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I knew about the credit card

I knew about the credit card fraud back in October. I was surprised it didn't make the news back then.. and I don't understand why this is not a bigger story now.

jbartley
407
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jbartley 12/14/09 - 07:00 pm
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Johnny keep on diging and

Johnny keep on diging and exposing the truth, this is what we need from our REPORTER'S!

jbartley
407
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jbartley 12/14/09 - 07:04 pm
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Johnny keep on diging and

Johnny keep on diging and exposing the truth, this is what we need from our REPORTER'S!

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