Augusta Commission members raked Marble Palace renovation architects Virgo Gambill and Heery International project manager Forrest White over the coals when the issue of the clerk of commission’s office space came up on Tuesday’s agenda.
Commissioners were so outraged by what Commissioner Corey Johnson said is poor design and wasted space on the renovated second floor that they suspended construction on the eighth and ninth floors until flaws are remedied and the clerk’s space problem is resolved – at no expense to taxpayers.
That’s what they said, but we’ll see.
ROOM FOR COMPLAINT, BUT NOT STORAGE: The main commission meeting area, which is supposed to double as a secondary Superior Court courtroom, seats 255 people. The adjacent clerk of court’s office is cramped with no security for valuable records and can be entered through a side door by someone unnoticed.
The vault is on another floor and a storage room on another, so the clerk would be running from floor to floor. It’s also at the opposite end of the hall from the mayor’s office – 300-plus steps – although the clerk usually interacts with the mayor several times a day about scheduling meetings, agendas, document signing, public meeting notices and other matters.
Behind commission chambers, there’s one unisex bathroom for 10 commissioners.
Commission Clerk Lena Bonner advised Heery, the architects and then-City Administrator Fred Russell as early as 2008 about her space needs – and has the records to prove it – but they were discounted and ignored, she said.
As for the architects’timeline of events, Bonner said they were “somewhat disingenuous.”
The attorney’s spacious reception area, suite of offices and conference room are across the hall from the mayor’s oversized reception area and office. The mayor’s administrative assistant also has a spacious office.
“Why is it that my storage space, my access to my records has to be at four and five different places?” Bonner asked.
“I agree, Ms. Bonner,” Commissioner Donnie Smith said. “And there’s a certain group of people that are responsible, Virgo Gambill. I remember they came and asked us for money. I was unhappy with their performance then. They’re the only ones in this room responsible. And I’m as disappointed today as I was the first time I met y’all.”
Commissioners directed White, Virgo Gambill and Bonner to meet, along with Johnson, and find a solution to the clerk’s space.
Since Bonner has said she wants to move into the law department’s space, I do believe Attorney Andrew MacKenzie and his staff won’t be across from the mayor’s office after all.
HERE COME DUH JUDGE: Commissioners aren’t the only ones with complaints about the commission/courtroom area.
In a Monday letter to interim Administrator Tameka Allen, J. Carlisle Overstreet, the chief judge of the Augusta Judicial Circuit, thanked her for efforts to ensure office space for senior judges in the renovated building.
“While temporary relocation satisfies our short-term needs, it should be understood the senior judge office is a small part of the court having a presence in the building,” he wrote. “Any building designated as a courthouse has certain components that must be present; a courtroom, a jury room, holding facilities and judge’s chambers. While the senior judge’s suite can double as the judges’ chambers, the location should be near the courtroom.
“The current design of the holding facilities needs to be addressed,” Overstreet continued. “In the planning stages of the renovations, the court was adamant about maintaining a holding facility. The current design does not meet any correctional facility standard.
“In the plans submitted to us, the jury room (i.e. conference room) was located to the rear of the courtroom with secure access by jurors. The current location of the jury room requires jurors to traverse through an office or through the public areas.”
Overstreet stated that he’d asked Superior Court Judge Carl Brown and Court Administrator Tom Gunnels to revisit the building last week and arrange a time to meet with Allen.
So when the chief judge says “Frog,” what does everybody do?
HOLD ON TO YOUR WALLETS! Commissioners will discuss whether they can balance next year’s budget without a tax increase Monday while 13 city employees recover from a $40,417 weeklong computer software conference at Disneyland.
Kinda’ goofy, huh?
Commissioner Bill Lockett’s Finance Committee agenda item calls for discussing “long-range budget projections to ascertain whether a 2015 balanced budget is possible without an increase in taxes.”
In addition to the state eliminating a sales tax on energy purchased by manufacturers, which will mean $4 million in lost revenue to Richmond County in 2016, this year’s General Assembly changed tax laws estimated to cost Georgia local governments $153 million over five years.
“These revenue losses must be recouped and will not properly be addressed by department cuts and continued employee wage freezes. … We must be able to replace lost revenue,” Lockett states.
WHERE’D YOU GET THAT MICKEY MOUSE HAT? Commissioner Marion Williams, a frequent flyer himself, has an agenda item about “employees attending the June 2-7 SUNGARD software conference held in Anaheim, Calif.”
“I’m trying to find out who OK’d that,” Williams said. “I’m not saying people shouldn’t travel and go. But we’re using their software. We’ve got a training room. We’ve got an IT department that has won awards. Why can’t they send somebody here? It bothers me that they go to someone who we buy software from.”
Commissioner Mary Davis said that if there was no other option for employees to receive the training closer to home, she would “have to trust that department heads are spending taxpayer money responsibly.”
Commissioner Bill Fennoy said the location of a conference is not determined by the participants but by the conference sponsor.
“Commissioners have attended conferences in Seattle, Texas, Savannah, and from what I’ve heard commissioners have gone to Hawaii, and the only reason they’re going is to get information that’s going to benefit the citizens and government of Richmond County,” Fennoy said.
Finance Department Director Donna Williams, who sent three employees to the conference, said they received valuable training that will facilitate moving to a major upgrade to the city’s IFAS software system in six to nine months.
“It’s huge for us, and it has been huge for other areas,” she said. “Nobody wants to go into it blind. And it is the only national training for the IFAS system.”
Employees from IT, procurement, human resources and disadvantaged business enterprise also attended the conference. They stayed in $240-a-night rooms at the Disneyland Hotel and Resort.
I’LL SWAP YOU MY LEI FOR THAT HAT: Everybody knows Augusta commissioners’ love of learning is exceeded only by their love of travel.
When Williams and then-Commissioners Betty Beard, Richard Colclough and Bobby Hankerson attended the annual conference of the National Association of Counties in 2005, Williams said he’d learned enough about the budgeting process at one workshop to pay for the trip.
Last year, local taxpayers paid for commissioners and other city officials to attend the Georgia Municipal Association conference in Savannah in June; the Association County Commissioners of Georgia conference in Savannah in July, plus their legislative conferences in Atlanta. Five commissioners attended the National Association of Counties conference in Fort Worth, Texas, in July, then there was the NACO conference and the National League of Cities conference in Seattle in November.