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.
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.