Mason blasts proposed changes

Michael Holahan/Staff
Alvin Mason: Elected official says he supports the changes and will move forward after his concerns are addressed.

After missing three meetings where changes to Augusta's personnel manual were detailed and approved, Commissioner Alvin Mason unleashed a nearly 30-minute diatribe against the changes Monday.

Mason, who attributed his absences to mandatory training for his federal job, insisted that the changes, part of City Administrator Fred Russell's restructuring plan for city government, were not being done "in the right manner."

Mason reiterated a claim previously made by Commissioner Bill Lockett that the changes stealthily accomplish a switch in Augusta's form of government and require amending the city charter, which takes eight commission votes -- more than the six the proposal got Feb. 1.

The claim runs counter to opinions prepared by General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie, who has said the proposed changes are legal but won't publicly elaborate, citing attorney-client privilege.

Russell's Jan. 21 presentation on the restructuring plan had gone on "ad nauseam," Mason said, and left no time for discussion or dialogue, "so, unfortunately, we're going to get some of that today."

Mason said he wanted more data and a side-by-side cost comparison on the proposal.

Several minutes later, Russell responded that he was unsure Mason's concerns were "germane" to the discussion about the manual.

"Let me see if I can't clear it up for you," Mason retorted, reading passages from the manual giving the administrator hiring and firing authority and final authority over employment issues.

"There's reorganization within that," he said. "I should not see this type of verbiage. You have now become a management form of government, and you cannot do that without a charter change."

Mason also questioned the personnel manual's giving Russell veto power over actions of Augusta's personnel board.

"If you're getting the final say, that's a management form of government," Mason said.

Russell responded that he was "more than available for dialogue" and that Mason was "not completely accurate" about some of the issues, but Mason interrupted.

"No, this one's going to be done this way," he said. "We're going to have this dialogue, and I don't see why we shouldn't have this dialogue, just to make sure that it's done correctly."

"Just don't cut off the administrator in midsentence," Commissioner Jerry Brigham said.

Mason accused Brigham of having "something to hide" in the substitute motion he offered to pass the manual last week, which gave Russell exclusive authority to recommend people to department-head positions, apparently instead of what the manual designated -- power to hire department heads.

"It's a play on words is what it is," Mason said. "Unless Mr. Brigham's talking about removing that language in particular, redacting that, and inserting the new language."

Twenty-nine minutes of commentary later, Mason asked MacKenzie to speak.

A lot of the issues were "specifically addressed" in two written opinions MacKenzie has presented to the commission, he said.

"The real question is what can you do before you get to the point where you're changing to a management form of government, and that's carefully outlined in the opinion," MacKenzie said. "I take that charter very seriously. Nobody is more concerned about whether (the changes are) done right than me."

After an earlier closed legal meeting of the entire commission, a motion to release the opinions to the public was derailed by Brigham's voting "no" on adding it to the agenda.

Lockett said that he welcomed releasing the documents before "a new set of eyes" and that they gave his concerns some merit.

He also read from a Georgia Municipal Association legal opinion that called the assignment of duties given to a mayor and commission to the administrator "a slippery slope" that might be "impermissibly changing the form of government."

The full commission is scheduled to vote on a second reading of the actions during its next regular meeting.

IN OTHER BUSINESS
  • After a closed legal meeting, the Augusta Commission  OK'd settling two claims made in condemnation actions, authorizing payment of $7,500 to Keisha Martin, in addition to a payment of $30,000 when the city condemned her property for public use last year; and $77,280 to James L. Hamrick, in addition to an earlier payment of $52,720 made in  2009, according to resolutions authorizing the settlements.
  • The  Engineering Services Committee signed off on a consent agreement and $51,800 fine from the Environmental Protection Agency that resulting from a June 13 chlorine spill at Augusta Utilities' Peach Orchard Road facility. Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier said an "operator trainee" who remains employed failed to report the spill  because of lack of training, but that there was no danger to the public.
  • The Finance Committee took no action on funding a $160,000 firefighter wellness initiative of physicals, occupational and agility fitness testing that was added to the agenda by Commissioner Jerry Brigham  before the meeting.

More