Judge rules for Augusta in Baptist Ministers' suit

Augusta Superior Court Judge J. David Roper on Thursday ruled in favor of Augusta-Richmond County in a lawsuit filed by a black ministers’ group, finding that the mayor does not have power to hire and fire employees and that the Augusta Commission did not act beyond its authority in delegating increased powers to the city administrator, including several provisions enumerated in the city’s new personnel manual.

Roper denied Augusta General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie’s request for attorney’s fees, saying a legal controversy existed, and ruled that plaintiffs, The Baptist Ministers Conference of Augusta, Barbara Gordon, Mallory Millender and the Revs. K.B. Martin, James Williams and Melvin Ivey, did have standing.

The only Augusta commissioner to attend the morning hearing was Alvin Mason, one of four black commissioners for whom the lawsuit has bolstered claims that City Administrator Fred Russell’s efforts to reorganize city departments and give raises are illegal. The four have opposed nearly every action related to the personnel manual and Russell’s reorganization plan.

Ivey said his group hadn’t decided whether to appeal. “To say it was politically motivated, no. What we’re fighting for is what’s right in the city of Augusta and that everybody followed the law.”

In his motion for summary judgment, MacKenzie said the suit was “a political attempt to alter the outcome of the commission’s decision,” while plaintiffs at an August town hall meeting called Russell’s reorganization plan a white-led effort to weaken what will become a majority-black Augusta Commission.

Before ruling, Roper said “the political issues stop right here.”

The matters at issue date to the mid-1990s when Augusta and Richmond County were consolidated and even earlier, to a 1980 Richmond County ordinance that established the position of administrator, a title not mentioned in the consolidation bill.

That then-Sen. Charles Walker stated during consolidation discussions with the commission that Augusta’s mayor had to have the powers of a chief executive, a point raised by plaintiffs’ attorney Serena Sparks, went nowhere with Roper.

MacKenzie, listing the mayor’s limited duties as spelled out in the consolidation bill, said legislative history isn’t relevant except when facts are unknown.

“This case boils down to a wish,” MacKenzie said. “They want you to write in here the mayor’s powers.”

Only if the mayor had those powers to hire and fire would the commission be required to amend the consolidation bill, requiring eight commission votes, when it delegated them to the administrator.

Roper said Augusta’s mayor never had those powers to be taken away. “The mayor in this case does not have the right to hire and fire,” he ruled.

Nor does the city administrator “have unfettered discretion with regard to what has been delegated to him,” Roper said, because the administrator’s implementation of his duties is subject to the rules spelled out in the personnel manual.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver, who briefly entertained the idea of possessing executive powers to hire and fire around the time the suit was filed, said the outcome was what he expected as he had “full confidence in Mr. MacKenzie’s legal counsel.”

But, he added, Augusta remains in a rare 3 percent of municipal governments with neither a strong mayor nor strong administrator, a factor likely making it less efficient and effective.

“I believe a strong mayor form is definitely worth considering,” but requires the support of the commission and legislative delegation, the mayor said.

Bill Lockett, one of the four black commissioners, said he respects the ruling. “I believe the judge did a fair and impartial assessment of what was there, and we just have to see what happens,” he said. He was critical of MacKenzie’s demand for attorney fees, however, saying that general counsel rarely requests them in other suits considered frivolous, such as those against the city’s procurement department.

Lockett said that since the commission became majority white in 2010, the four black commissioners are often left out of discussions altogether.

While he’s at the center of the suit, Russell said little about the ruling.

“It brings some closure to a point that’s frequently raised,” he said.

Hearing in Baptist Ministers' lawsuit against Augusta today
Ministers group bashes Augusta government change
Mason says Russell must go
Ministers' suit against reorganization faces obstacles
Lawsuit delays opinion from attorney general
Ministers' suit fights city's plan

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