Meeting fix draws doubters

Bill Lockett: Commission member says the general counsel is trying to "support, retroactively, decisions he has made."

When they changed their meeting time last year from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., Augusta Commission members adopted an ordinance, now part of the city code, that also specifies that the commission meets twice a month in the Municipal Building.

That was one point raised by Commissioner Bill Lockett last week when he, Alvin Mason and Corey Johnson blocked passage of a charter amendment striking the language "at the courthouse" from an old Richmond County law that city lawyers say still binds the commission.

Unless the language comes out, the commission will be required to meet monthly at the soon-to-open Augusta Judicial Building and John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse, according to General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie.

When commissioners approved the meeting ordinance last year, "for whatever reason the local act was never amended," prompting the need to amend the consolidation bill now, MacKenzie said.

Lockett had another explanation: "He's trying to go back and make things agree in order to support, retroactively, decisions he has made."

The amendment had more in it than the meeting place. In what MacKenzie called a general "cleanup," it also incorporated old county law establishing recreation programs, animal control and the position of administrator.

The lack of any eight-vote consolidation bill amendment creating the administrator's job is what prevents the commission from being able to delegate additional powers to the post, according to an opinion from the Office of Legislative Counsel.

"If they had chosen to amend the charter through a home rule amendment, it would have been within their power to alter the powers given to the mayor in the charter and delegate the power to hire and fire to the county administrator," Deputy Legislative Counsel Rick Ruskell wrote.

Lockett, Mason, Johnson and Commissioner Johnny Hatney have consistently opposed recent efforts to increase the authority of the administrator, which is part of a larger restructuring plan designed by Administrator Fred Russell.

The legislative counsel opinion stands in opposition to MacKenzie's, and both were being evaluated by Attorney General Sam Olens until a black pastors' group filed suit against the city over the restructuring plan and the related adoption of a new personnel manual, which the group alleges violates the Georgia Constitution.

"These same issues are the subject matter of your inquiry," Olens wrote in a letter to Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta, declining to review the matter and deferring to the court.

Lockett insisted that, while he and the pastors' group appear to share the same position on the restructuring plan and manual, his opposition to the amendment "does not have anything at all to do with race -- this is about compliance with the law."

Johnson has said the question of how many votes are needed to approve a measure -- six for regular actions or eight to amend the consolidation bill and change the form of government -- had become too confusing and that he would like to wait until the court decides.

Opposition and litigation have not stopped the commission from taking steps to implement the restructuring plan.

Several of the 29 employees scheduled for layoffs have received 90-day notices. MacKenzie sent a new ordinance to commissioners Thursday dealing with a new, consolidated planning and development office that's part of the plan.

Russell says the plan is needed to help cover a $9 million budget deficit. Opponents say that under the law the plan's changes require eight votes, rather than the six most have received, to pass.

"The water is just too muddy right now," Johnson said. "At least I know at the end of the day I don't have anyone come back and say it was against the rules."

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