Two-term Commissioner Alvin Mason touts his experience on the sometimes-fractured Augusta Commission as an asset, not a liability, that he’ll bring into the mayor’s office if elected May 20.
In an interview with The Augusta Chronicle, Mason spoke about his commission tenure and what it’s taught him about the inner workings of city government, including issues he says exist with Augusta’s new special purpose local option sales tax, and powers inherent in the mayor’s office.
A native of Lansing, Mich., Mason started his military career in 1984 at Fort Gordon. Now a civilian in the post’s contract management office, Mason cited military experience, government work and commission experience as preparing him to be mayor of Augusta.
“In the U.S. Army, this is our definition of leadership: The art or ability of influencing others in such a manner as to obtain their willing obedience in order to accomplish the mission,” he said.
“I’ll tell you how important that is. When you talk about serving your country, we’ve got to communicate effectively, with real dialogue, bringing diverse groups together so we can come home and be with our families, instead of being viewed by our famlies ... across a casket or in a body bag. That’s how serious this is to me.”
Mason noted the recent arrivals of Costco, Cabela’s, Starbucks’ new soluble products plant and Rockwood Pigment as examples of success by the commission.
”I’m very proud in the last seven years we’ve had some of the most phenomenal growth that we’ve had in Augusta-Richmond, and I’m very, very proud of that, irrespective of the fact that sometimes there’s a perception that we’re divided.”
Q: You’re opposed to the special purpose local option sales tax, is that correct?
A: Yes sir I am; for several reasons. One ... is that state law says that what we’re doing right now with this particular time with the special purpose local option sales tax is not 100 percent legal... If you look at state law it says that the recommended way of putting a special purpose local option sales tax package together is to do it one year from the time of the expiration date of your current special purpose local option sales tax ...
(Having said that, Mason said he doesn’t want anyone to think) “he’s against art or he’s against curing cancer or he’s against helping our local institutions bring themselves up by the bootstraps” – nothing could be further from the case. The fact of the matter is that as a soldier and as an enforcer and a participant in laws, I try to just do what the law says …
Q: So if you’re elected mayor and the special purpose local option sales tax passes, do you then challenge it?
A: That’s a very good question and people (say) “You’ve got to be for it.” Well, no I don’t, because right now I’m the only one that sits in this position that is currently a commissioner of my district and I have to address the will of my district, then I’m running for a position. That means you’ve got to address the will of the entire city ... I’m caught between a rock and a hard place.
Q: You’ve said as mayor you’ll be CEO and enforcer of Augusta’s codes and ordinances. How would you go about doing that?
A: A priority, and it goes straight to the issues we have here in the community and these derelict homes, buildings and so forth, be it downtown, Harrisburg, Summerville, Olde Town, wherever. Not enforcing the laws, getting buildings up to code and off the books, that’s been a huge Achilles heel for this community.
One, we would have an assessment to make sure that people understand what their role in this government is ... So we’ve got to understand where the buck stops and who is responsible for what ... Once we’ve done that, we’re going to have weekly “come to Jesus” meetings as far as where we’re at and where we’re going.
Q: From your perspective does Augusta have an image issue? Since the mayor is really like the spokesperson, the face for the city and its cheerleader, what’s your style and how would you go about advocating for the city and controlling that image?
A: First and foremost, you can’t control something that you don’t have the authority to control, so I can’t control our image because that’s painted by so many external variables, to include news media, print media, neighborhood associations ...
So the question becomes how do we change the perception of how we’re viewed? The reality of the situation is we’re nowhere near what we’re perceived to be ... 90 percent or more of what we pass, we pass unanimously, 10 of us ...
But there are some things that cause us to take some spirited discussion in terms of agenda items. So at the end of the day I don’t control how we’re viewed. My personal belief (is) that there is a disconnect, and has been a disconnect for decades between the mayor’s office and the county commission. The county commission is your regulatory body and your governing body. The mayor’s office is, some people say, cheerleader, it’s much more than that but the mayor’s not the one that sets the policy and do those types of things ... The unique position that I find myself in, having been a county commissioner, is that I clearly understand what divides us and those things that we can agree upon.
Q: Would you be in favor of changing the charter and what would you change?
A: I’d be in favor of amending the charter. There are certain areas that to me need to be looked at ... For instance, our city administrator. I personally think it’s a problem that we have an administrator versus a city manager. An administrator by nature is there to administrate. In other words, he or she does not have hiring or firing authority over department heads and things like this.
Q: So make him a city administrator, city manager with hiring and firing authority?
A: I believe he ought to be a city manager... I believe that that would be appropriate for this type of government, especially if you’re going to have what’s considered to be a weak mayor position …
Myself personally, my professional opinion as far as a mayor needing veto power and all, I don’t think you need it to be effective. I don’t, because at the end of the day, and I forget who said it, absolute authority is not really a good thing to have ...
Q: Would you like for that charter to be changed so we do have a strong mayor rather than a weak mayor?
A: Here’s what I would advocate for – I would advocate for it to go on a referendum on a ballot. On a general election – not on one of these special called deals where you get special interest groups to come out and say yea or nay.
But on a general election, when the majority of folks are voting and say hey, would you like to see the government structure change in Augusta-Richmond County to a strong mayor – a strong mayor is one who has a vote and/or a veto – or would you like to see it change to a management form of government, a city manager versus an administrator, and let those that are responsible for our government to decide versus one person, or 10 people on the commission, or 7-8 state representatives.
Q: So at the end of the day, let’s assume you become mayor. How will you determine if you’ve been successful and what key performance indicators will you use during your mayorship to judge that?
A: I’d do an assessment of myself and say did I give my all to the job, was I as honest and forthcoming as I could possibly be, did I represent the will of the people, did I hit every communication possible, through communications and real dialogue to get people on one accord or at least to get people to agree to disagree ... If that answer is yes, then I believe I’ve done everything I can do.