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Copenhaver's delay on gay pride parade fits his history during heat of controversy

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Last week, the organizers of an upcoming gay pride festival inadvertently cast light on another subject few people in Augusta like to talk about: Mayor Deke Copenhaver's penchant for ducking controversy.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver asked the Law Department's opinion before approving a parade for a June gay pride festival.   File/staff
File/staff
Mayor Deke Copenhaver asked the Law Department's opinion before approving a parade for a June gay pride festival.

His was the last signature needed to approve Augusta Pride's request to parade on Broad Street on June 19, the kickoff for a daylong festival to be held at the Augusta Common, Riverwalk Augusta and the Jessye Norman Amphitheater, expected to draw 4,000 to 8,000 people.

The mayor said he knew that, from a constitutional standpoint, he had no right to deny the application. But he faced a torrent of e-mails, letters and phone calls urging him to block the event.

"Stand up for JESUS and don't fall into devil ways," said an e-mail sent to Copenhaver by William Martin.

Kenneth Smith called the mayor's office and said he'd rather see the city pay for a lawsuit than allow the parade, according to information obtained from the city under an open records request. Six protests came from Baptist pastors, and Copenhaver also received a Bible-quoting petition with 14 signatures.

The mayor did what he has done several other times when the ball dropped in his lap -- when civil unrest broke out at the Cherry Tree Crossing public housing project in 2008, when a tornado ripped through south Augusta neighborhoods in April, when a retired attorney was accused of trying to bribe commissioners during the trade, exhibit and event center controversy in September, and in a number of other instances.

He punted, according to several political observers.

BEFORE SIGNING OFF on the gay pride parade, the mayor obtained a legal opinion from interim General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie, who wrote in a memo that the city has no legal grounds to limit one group's right to free speech.

The mayor said Thursday that he sought the opinion for the benefit of all involved, so the people asking him to deny the permit would see that legally he had no choice.

That's a no-brainer, something the mayor should have stood up and explained himself, former Augusta Commissioner Andy Cheek said.

"Deke's my friend, and I like him," Cheek said. "But his one character flaw, to me, is a fear of taking a stand on controversial issues."

All too often, Cheek said, the mayor takes the "Pollyanna path," cutting ribbons and touting the city's rankings in magazines but not rallying the troops at pivotal moments.

Commissioner Don Grantham said Copenhaver was "covering his backside" on the parade.

"It's hard to be something to everybody," he said. "I just think it's time to fish or cut bait."

Grantham and others willing to go on record about the mayor's perceived habit of ducking and dodging did so only if it was made clear that they like and respect Copenhaver, and that they only wanted to offer constructive criticism.

SUCH IS THE CASE with the mayor, someone warmly regarded by many, someone credited with bringing a positive image to the city during his four years in office, someone even former political opponents find it hard to speak ill of.

William "Gil" Gilyard, who ran against Copenhaver in 2006 and attacked him then for a lack of heft as a leader, said he thinks the mayor has been sincere about trying to do the right things for Augusta. He said he could criticize Copenhaver's handling of the gay pride parade only if the mayor was, in fact, trying to duck making a decision when he knew it was a foregone conclusion.

"The buck has to stop someplace," Gilyard said. "If you know something is right, why do you have to check it again to see if it's right again?"

Commissioner Jimmy Smith said he has no problem with Copenhaver seeking a legal opinion, considering the city could have faced lawsuits had he denied the request. Commissioner Joe Jackson said he might have done the same thing.

"If something is iffy," Jackson said, "and we're not sure, I'm not an attorney. It's like getting a second opinion."

Grantham said, however, that a mayor shouldn't need legal advice on such a clear-cut First Amendment issue. He said he often finds such behavior inexplicable, considering that Copenhaver won his last election, a four-way race, with 66 percent and no runoff. Most politicians would see that as a mandate, Grantham said, a license to take his case to the people regardless of his inability to vote unless it's to break a tie.

"I don't see it as a problem," Grantham said, "but I see it as an individual with responsibility and authority that is not willing to exercise it."

Sometimes, when opportunities to exercise his authority have come up, Copenhaver hasn't made himself available.

ON THE NIGHT after a fatal police shooting in Cherry Tree Crossing, when an angry mob hurled rocks and bottles at sheriff's deputies, Copenhaver didn't answer his phone or return messages from The Augusta Chronicle, leaving Commissioner Corey Johnson to speak about the case and publicly say that rioting wasn't the answer. Four days later, the mayor, along with other politicians and several ministers, made a call for calm at Good Shepherd Baptist Church.

When tornadoes did millions of dollars of damage in Richmond, Columbia, Burke and Aiken counties during Masters Week last year, Commissioners Calvin Holland and Alvin Mason took food and water to storm-damaged homes in south Augusta. Copenhaver made an appearance almost a week and a half later in a tour of neighborhoods with U.S. Rep. John Barrow.

When the sheriff's office launched an investigation into bribery allegations involving retired attorney David W. Fry, accused of offering two commissioners lucrative management positions in a parking deck if they would change their votes on the TEE center, Copenhaver again didn't respond to messages. Earlier that week, the commission had charged him with the task of forming a committee to forge a solution to the gridlock over the issue.

"I think sometimes he wants to stay above the controversy," said 10th Congressional District Republican Party Chairman Dave Barbee, whom the mayor asked to resign from the Augusta Housing Authority in 2007 over a leaked e-mail perceived as racist. Copenhaver also ignored news media inquiries then.

Barbee questioned why the mayor will solicit help for Haiti with Richmond County schools Superintendent Dana Bedden but won't speak out on gang violence in his own city.

"When we've had incidents when the mayor needed to step forward on a bully pulpit, I just didn't see him step forward and taking the lead on that," Barbee said.

Though he spoke to The Chronicle last week about his parade decision, Copenhaver didn't return messages Friday seeking an interview for this article about his handling of it. When a reporter called his office, his secretary said he wasn't in but that she would pass him a message through his BlackBerry. The newspaper also sent him an e-mail -- typically the best way to reach him -- but he didn't respond.

Copenhaver has taken a strong stance on some issues, Barbee said. There's his fight for a downtown baseball stadium, which has him at odds with most of the commission, and Barbee credited him for endorsing Mason and Freddie Handy in the 2007 commission elections, seeing them as more moderate choices over incumbent Bernard Harper and Johnson, who was endorsed by then-Commissioner Marion Williams.

But on the gay pride parade the mayor should have shown "experience and the good judgment of the people who elected him to make that decision on his own," Barbee said.

Other mayors put in similar situations have done just that.

Former Mayor Bob Young said he knew he would catch heat for approving a Nuwaubian parade downtown in 2001. The group led by the now-convicted child molester Dwight York was already stirring controversy in Athens and Putnam County, but Young didn't seek a lawyer's opinion first.

"I had to approve it because the U.S. Constitution gives the right to peacefully assemble," he said.

North Charleston, S.C., will have its first gay pride parade May 15, and Mayor Keith Summey and the Special Events Committee signed off without legal advice, knowing they had no other choice, committee Co-chairwoman Lisa Reynolds said.

News of the parade broke after Summey signed off on it, but even in the middle of the backlash, he hasn't reneged on serving as grand marshal, even though he told The (Charleston) Post and Courier he doesn't support the gay lifestyle.

Copenhaver said last week that he'll be out of town the weekend of Augusta's gay pride festival.

Former Commissioner Betty Beard said the way he's handled the issue hasn't surprised her because going out on a limb just isn't something Copenhaver does.

"You know how the mayor is, and you know that he is a very nice guy," she said. "But he is very weak otherwise."

Public Service Editor Mike Wynn contributed to this article.

Feeling the heat

The nonprofit Augusta Pride submitted a request to the city Feb. 10 for permission to hold a gay pride parade. A day earlier, the mayor's office and the city clerk's office began receiving e-mails opposing the event.

The Chronicle first asked Mayor Deke Copenhaver about the application Feb. 11, and he responded by e-mail that he wasn't aware of any application.

Informed subsequently that the newspaper had learned there was a request pending and that it was awaiting his approval, Copenhaver didn't respond until asked again about it Tuesday. By that time, the sheriff's office, fire department and Recreation and Parks Department had all signed off, and only the mayor's approval was needed. He finally signed off Thursday, after seeking advice from the Law Department.

According to documents obtained by the newspaper through an open records request, between Feb. 9 and Thursday the mayor's and city clerk's offices received 79 messages about the gay pride event -- the overwhelming majority of them in opposition.

A breakdown, by parade supporters and detractors:

E-MAILS

Against -- 53

For -- 7

Of those against, six were sent by pastors: Greg Bentley of Southside Baptist Church, Larry Harmon of West Acres Baptist, Bill Harrell of Abilene Baptist, Wallace Hoyle of Morningside Baptist, James Perkins of Dayspring Baptist and Jane Jacobson.

Of those for, two were sent by the Rev. Margaret Beard of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta.

LOGGED PHONE CALLS

Against -- 15

For -- 0

One call was from the Rev. Wayne Todd of McBean Baptist.

FAXes

Against -- 2

For -- 0

ONE LETTER , against

ONE PETITION with 14 signatures, against

Excerpts, as they were written:

AGAINST

"This is Augusta, Georgia not Sodom or Gomorrah." -- e-mail from the Rev. Wallace Hoyle of Morningside Baptist Church

"The pedophiles want their 'perversion' to be accepted and celebrated, as do the polygamists. If we continue down this path of political correctness we'll soon find that murderers and thieves want their rights protected, as will rapists and racists." -- e-mail from Bill Hilley

"I'd like to make it very clear to the mayor and the commissioners that under no circumstances will I ever vote for anyone who votes in favor of the petition for a gay pride parade." -- e-mail from Vickie Richeson of Blythe

"These people have my permission to go back into the closet where they belong." -- e-mail from Claudia Davis

"Dear Mayor Copenhaver: It has been brought to my attention that you are the only one left to give approval for a gay rights parade on Father's Day in Augusta, GA -- what a mockery! PLEASE, do the righteous thing -- block it!" -- fax from Dorothy D. Mooney of Martinez

FOR

"My partner and I along with our 2 children recently moved to the Augusta area from New Jersey. ... We like the Augusta area very much and would like to attend a Gay Pride Parade and have our children see that there are other gays and lesbians and families in the area." -- e-mail from Ivy Shipes

"Dear Mr. Mayor, Thank you for approving the parade permit. It was the legal, brave and right thing to do despite opposition." -- e-mail from the Rev. Margaret Beard of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta.

Source: Documents obtained by The Augusta Chronicle under an open records act request

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Little Lamb
56840
Points
Little Lamb 02/21/10 - 12:10 am
0
0
Why in the world should the

Why in the world should the mayor take a stand on political issues? He does not run the city, he merely signs the papers others decide on. Mayor Copenhaver's agenda is to throw taxpayer money to his brother-in-law until he leaves office, and then to get on the gravy train himself.

Riverman1
120734
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Riverman1 02/21/10 - 01:07 am
0
0
I kept telling you guys Deke

I kept telling you guys Deke reminds me of Casper the Friendly Ghost. Look at Caspar's image and tell me they are not one in the same.

But, seriously, thank you, Johnny Edwards, for saying what some have been saying for awhile. Hopefully, this POWERFUL article ends Deke's political aspirations around here.

By the way, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, a graduate of the former Baptist College at Charleston (now Charleston Southern) and a vocal Baptist with much support from the churches, is the last person you would imagine would lead a gay parade. But even he saw that leading the parade was the right thing to do.

If you recall, I suggested Deke do the same thing.

joeuser
0
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joeuser 02/21/10 - 01:03 am
0
0
Oh, give me a break! Once

Oh, give me a break! Once again...the Chronicle doesn't have anything to write about, so they stir up something by interviewing a bunch of mayor-wantabees and the usual attention-starved politicians and create a story that is not a story.

The way I see it...he approved something he does not morally believe in and in which support was like 6-1 against. That's not the easiest thing to do - especially where one's morals are involved and where no matter what you are "damned if you do and damned if you don't."

The gays do have a constitutional right to peacefully assemble with the proper license...but so does Deke have the right to investigate all of his options. That does not make one weak.

I thought it took guts to consult an attorney about something that is pretty cut and dried.

We have a town full of "politicians" who love nothing more than to read their name in the paper (no matter what the subject) and think they are big stuff when they get quoted. Sick.

jasonpilgrim
0
Points
jasonpilgrim 02/21/10 - 01:11 am
0
0
I didn't hear Mr. Grantham's

I didn't hear Mr. Grantham's or Mrs. Beard's thoughts on the Gay Pride parade, only criticism after the fact. Hind sight is 20/20, remember that before you attempt to tear down the mayors decisions.

FedupwithAUG
0
Points
FedupwithAUG 02/21/10 - 04:34 pm
0
0
I deleted my previous post

I deleted my previous post because I'm stirring the pot to much.

FedupwithAUG
0
Points
FedupwithAUG 02/21/10 - 04:24 pm
0
0
This event has been planned

This event has been planned for a while now.

FedupwithAUG
0
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FedupwithAUG 02/21/10 - 04:48 pm
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"Copenhaver said last week

"Copenhaver said last week that he'll be out of town the weekend of Augusta's gay pride festival."
LOL

Dorion
0
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Dorion 02/21/10 - 01:37 am
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Little Lamb....that's big

Little Lamb....that's big news! So what you are saying is that the mayor is funneling money to people and companies that will, at some point, put him on the "gravy train"? If you can support these accusations, this could be the story of the year. If you can't, you should probably take off the tin foil hat and quit posting (boderline libelous) statements.

helpicantfindthespacebar
1
Points
helpicantfindthespacebar 02/21/10 - 01:41 am
0
0
79 messages against the

79 messages against the parade? Out of the 185K+ population of Richmond County, that's hardly an overwhelming majority against this event.

FedupwithAUG
0
Points
FedupwithAUG 02/21/10 - 04:42 pm
0
0
Can't wait to see the cartoon

Can't wait to see the cartoon on this subject.

FedupwithAUG
0
Points
FedupwithAUG 02/21/10 - 01:46 am
0
0
Oh Please Dorion, What rock

Oh Please Dorion, What rock have you been hiding under. That's Augusta Politics.

Junket831
0
Points
Junket831 02/21/10 - 01:51 am
0
0
Joeuser has it right. This is

Joeuser has it right. This is an absolute waste of time. Deke handled this beautifully. His handling of it didn't cost the taxpayers a dime, the event goes on as planned and the AC creates an article to juice up readership. If he doesn't care about the parade or the issue then why should he be in town? This is not being a coward, its just quiet, decent leadership. Perhaps if the mayor had more power it might be worth it for him or any mayor to take more controversial stands. But hey, look at what is happening lately in Augusta: TEE is getting built, the Commission is starting to gel, JBA and Bell are bringing in acts and our city is getting occasional positive national press. Probably wouldn't be happening if he took a stand that offended a sizeable portion of the electorate.

Nat the Cat
1
Points
Nat the Cat 02/21/10 - 02:38 am
0
0
Johnny really nailed Deke!

Johnny really nailed Deke! Maybe Johnny ought to be the Grand Marshall of the Gay Parade.

FedupwithAUG
0
Points
FedupwithAUG 02/21/10 - 02:01 am
0
0
To bad he didn't take a stand

To bad he didn't take a stand when it came to X-mart. They don't even have to open and they are going to make millions off us taxpayers. That is a mistake none of the commisioners want to admit to! To bad they didn't consult a lawer back then it would have saved the city alot!

crackertroy
540
Points
crackertroy 02/21/10 - 03:27 am
0
0
Yeah, it does sound like the
Unpublished

Yeah, it does sound like the journalists are the ones hittin' soft balls here, not the mayor.

Petey Aitchess
0
Points
Petey Aitchess 02/21/10 - 03:42 am
0
0
If the biggest dig on Mayor

If the biggest dig on Mayor Deke is that he doesn't go off half-cocked, Augusta is very lucky to have him in that position. Stop the whining.

FedupwithAUG
0
Points
FedupwithAUG 02/21/10 - 03:43 am
0
0
Watch it when your talking

Watch it when your talking about balls on here. You may be reguarded as a biggot.

GGpap
528
Points
GGpap 02/21/10 - 04:07 am
0
0
Help! Please call 911! I'm

Help! Please call 911! I'm sure I'm having a heart event! Damn! I am in agreement with johnston.cliff (1:05 AM). Well said JC! GGpap

wcr250
71
Points
wcr250 02/21/10 - 05:22 am
0
0
Deke is no leader. He is a

Deke is no leader. He is a feel good mayor.No integrity.

Asitisinaug
4
Points
Asitisinaug 02/21/10 - 06:04 am
0
0
Deke is a good guy, cares

Deke is a good guy, cares about our city and tries to do right by all. However, I do agree, he needs to be a leader and no leader can every make more than about 60% of the people happy on any given issue. This county needs true leadership and people who get things done.

ghsfrshmn
2
Points
ghsfrshmn 02/21/10 - 06:20 am
0
0
Augusta never appreciates the

Augusta never appreciates the leaders it has. Enough said.

Brad Owens
5224
Points
Brad Owens 02/21/10 - 07:26 am
0
0
Deke is not a/the leader we

Deke is not a/the leader we NEED but he is the Mayor we deserve. I supported him against by very good freind Willie Mays and I have wondered why many times since then. Deke didn't stand up up for me on when I was being blackballed off the DDA even though I CAMPAIGNED for him as the President of the Young Democrats of Augusta, agianst the wishes of the party I might add. I did it because he was young and I wanted younger folks to get a chance to lead. My mistake. He will not take a stand because he doesn't want to anyone to not like him. Well, we need leaders in times of change, not caretakers or ribbon cutters.

Brad Owens
5224
Points
Brad Owens 02/21/10 - 07:30 am
0
0
Also, there is one last

Also, there is one last problem I have had too. The entire Goshen debacle where he tried to shove Section 8 on us. My Family live in Goshen and they didn't want it. The mayor made a bad deal and I am glad it was killed in D.C., but it shows WHERE you can count on him to be.

Southern_Patriot
0
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Southern_Patriot 02/21/10 - 07:38 am
0
0
Dekey Boy lives in a fantasy

Dekey Boy lives in a fantasy world.

DAMY46
0
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DAMY46 02/21/10 - 07:59 am
0
0
Several folks (can we say Bob

Several folks (can we say Bob Young) are going to run against Deke....But, he will be re-elected.....You heard it here first....my 2 cents

johnston.cliff
2
Points
johnston.cliff 02/21/10 - 08:35 am
0
0
I take extreme exception with

I take extreme exception with this passive aggressive article trying to not come across as an opinion piece. I take it that Johnny Edwards or his puppeteer doesn't like Deke. No authority but plenty of responsibility is a thankless job description. The Augusta mayor is in no position to take the bull by the horns and wrestle the town into shape. The consolidation charter set up the mayor as a powerless figurehead who's primary purpose seems to be to take the heat for the actions of the commission. Mayor Copenhaver has found a way to work within these narrow parameters and still get plenty accomplished. He hardly comes across as milquetoast, except to Johnny and the only people he can find to interview for this opinion piece that didn't wind up in the opinion section.

Martinez
154
Points
Martinez 02/21/10 - 08:36 am
0
0
The chronicle and

The chronicle and commissioners are all part of the "we've always done it this way" crowd. Mayor Copenhavor represents all the people of Augusta, whether the Baptist church, the gay community etc. His personal beliefs are irrelavent as his job is to act within the law. He sought legal consultation and made the right choice. He has chosen to not personally attend, which is within his right as well. I personally would rather a Mayor that is cautious and thorough before speaking out or making decisions haphazardly that would cost the city millions in wasteful lawsuits. The problem in this town isn't Deke, it's people like this staff writer and many of the commissioners that seemingly have no filter between their unformed thoughts and puking them out for all to hear. All one has to do is read this paper or watch one commissioners' meeting to know that restraint and due dilligence alude them both.

johnston.cliff
2
Points
johnston.cliff 02/21/10 - 08:40 am
0
0
I posted an earlier comment

I posted an earlier comment without all of the light foot. Apparently my comments about Johnny Edwards physical modification didn't pass the filter. I wrote the article in the " I'd never accuse you of this but everyone I know does" style Johnny used in this article. I emphasized how cowardly I found it.

GiveMeTheScoop
0
Points
GiveMeTheScoop 02/21/10 - 08:37 am
0
0
Think Deke would make a great

Think Deke would make a great "Grand Marshall" of the parade! At least he would be at the tale end :)

cubbie
0
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cubbie 02/21/10 - 08:59 am
0
0
A "bully pulpit"?? Isn't

A "bully pulpit"?? Isn't that what we get day in and day out from Wash. DC? Why in the world would you demand that for Augusta. That's days gone by. Augusta Mayor has the common sence to get a legal opinion and not just say "this is what I want", he goes to the law . Do none of you remeber the Jim Beck days in law enforcement for example ? He RAN the mayor and everyone else. Is that what you want? A mayor that can be controlled by a few people. That's taking Augusta backward.

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