Lawsuit delays opinion from attorney general

Mayor Deke Copenhaver

An opinion settling the issue of Mayor Deke Copenhaver's authority to hire and fire personnel is unlikely to arrive from Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens anytime soon.

Instead, many of the issues raised in two competing legal opinions -- one written by Augusta General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie and the other by the Office of Legislative Counsel -- are likely to be addressed in an April 1 lawsuit filed against the city by a ministers group and others.

MacKenzie said that such pending litigation typically precludes attorneys general from rendering opinions and that the city had received a communication from Olens' office "along those lines."

MacKenzie said he'll brief the commission on the pending suit, filed against the city, Copenhaver and the six commissioners who voted last month to approve the code section, during a called legal meeting today.

The April 1 suit, filed by the Baptist Ministers Conference of Augusta, newspaper publisher Barbara Gordon, Paine College historian Mallory Millender and the Revs. Kenneth B. Martin, James Williams and Melvin Ivy, asked the court to declare a recently approved section of Augusta's code involving the city administrator unconstitutional and in violation of Georgia law. It did not ask for damages or attorney fees.

The suit, once resolved, will result in a court order deciding questions about the operation of city government going back to 1996, MacKenzie said.

In the same year that a Augusta-Richmond County consolidation went into effect, the commission created the position of administrator, a title that has held the most executive authority of any city official, elected or otherwise. No mayor has exercised authority as the city's chief executive.

In an opinion requested by Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta, the Office of Legislative Counsel found that Augusta's mayor was the city's chief executive and had powers as such that could not be delegated to the administrator without eight votes.

Deputy Legislative Counsel Rick Ruskell and plaintiffs in the Baptist Ministers' suit say the commission is delegating away the mayor's power without a two-thirds majority of the mayor and commission, or eight votes.

Jerry Brigham, one of the commissioners named in the suit, said the city might hire outside counsel to represent it in the case.

MacKenzie said that while unfortunate, the suit might have a positive outcome.

"If you have to go that road, at least you have a court order at the end of the road," he said.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver might have the authority to fire city personnel.

Ministers' suit fights city's plan
City reorganization is approved
Mayor wants vote on powers
Legal opinion supports change

More