Lady Justice might not have to share space with the Augusta Commission and City Administrator Fred Russell, after all.
A simple fix, requiring only six votes, is hoped to end weeks of commission wrangling over changing the city charter's requirement that the commission and administrator conduct business "at the courthouse."
Rather than amending the charter -- an effort that's repeatedly failed to garner the eight commission votes it needs to pass -- simply designating the Augusta-Richmond County Municipal Building as a courthouse annex appears to be "a viable solution," Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles said.
"It will keep the commission chamber where it is, and (the municipal building) will be able to handle any overflow traffic for court cases, so I think it all makes sense," Bowles said.
For nearly a decade, most Columbia County courts have occupied a courthouse annex in Evans, while the suburban county maintains the state's oldest continuously operating courthouse, an 1856 structure in Appling, Deputy Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson said.
"We have committee meetings there periodically, and they do hold court there," Johnson said. "The law does say that a judge must have one session at the county courthouse each year."
Before completion of Augusta-Richmond County Judicial Center and John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse, Augusta long spread its court functions across several buildings, including the municipal building, the Joint Law Enforcement Center and Juvenile Court, held in a former federal building at 971 Broad St.
Senior Augusta staff attorney Wayne Brown said he had been asked whether the commission could legally designate or annex the municipal building or others "into the courthouse system," and his answer was yes.
"They do have the authority to designate the municipal building to the courthouse, as part of their right and their duty under state law to erect, repair, furnish and maintain the courthouses of this jurisdiction," Brown said.
Power to designate such a building is given to the commission by state law and does not require an amendment to the city charter, Brown said.
The simplicity of the solution might lend credence to arguments posed by several commissioners about why the city charter must be amended to change the meeting place.
The proposed charter amendment, offered by general counsel Andrew MacKenzie as the only available solution, has failed, 6-3, three times.
A commissioner who accused MacKenzie of trying to slip "unlimited authority" to the administrator in the charter amendment, however, remained skeptical of the easy fix, insisting a simple amendment to the city code would have achieved the same result all along.
"They're trying to save face, because they knew all along that it wasn't going to be necessary for us to meet at the judicial center," said Bill Lockett, of District 5. "We're in violation on so many different things that are much greater than where the commission is going to meet."