The Augusta Commission will try to put its differences aside during a retreat scheduled for today and Friday at a downtown hotel.
The Carl Vinson Institute of Government, which has helped with previous commission retreats, is sending two people to guide the discussion – Gordon Maner, the senior public service associate who has facilitated retreats, and Malik Watkins, the former director of survey research at Savannah State University.
According to the agenda, the retreat will begin with questions about what keeps commissioners and the mayor up at night and their vision for Augusta in 10 years. After lunch, the members will break into two sections to discuss how to balance the 2012 budget. A month ago, the commission delayed implementing approximately $2.5 million in budget cuts until the retreat.
At the time, City Administrator Fred Russell said he was “not uncomfortable” with filling the shortfall using city savings and new revenue from property additions discovered by the tax assessor’s office. Several commissioners objected to relying on anticipated tax revenue to fill the gap.
The 10-member commission has been at odds, often along racial lines, over many issues over the past year, including agreements related to the new Trade, Exhibit and Event Center project (which will be known as the Augusta Convention Center), cutting the budget and eliminating jobs, and the reorganization of government – something it agreed was a priority at a 2010 retreat.
Last week, black commissioners accused white commissioners of scheming to donate the TEE Center’s new Reynolds Street parking deck to the Augusta Land Bank and excluding them from the discussion. Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who had the idea as a fix for those opposed to the parking deck real estate’s being privately owned, said it had come together just before the meeting and he hadn’t had time to run it by all commissioners.
Not listed on the retreat agenda is the commission code of conduct that Mayor Deke Copenhaver wanted the group to reapprove last month. At the objection of Commissioners Bill Lockett and Alvin Mason, the group voted to hold off on the code until the retreat. Copenhaver said conduct will come up under a broader agenda item. He reflected on 2010, a relatively harmonious year for the group.
“Eighty percent of the people sitting on the commission now were there when it was functioning extremely well,” the mayor said. “If we’ve done it before, we can do it again.”
Lockett, a frequent dissenter on commission actions, said he was keeping an open mind.
“This retreat can be a major success if each member of the commission-council, which includes the mayor, decides that all of the body will be provided the same information at the same time,” he said, “and that all members of the body will be involved in the decision-making process, with each member realizing he may not get 100 percent of what he wants, and that compromise is still in style.”