Commission vote on redistricting map fails

Commissioner Alvin Mason speaks about the redistricting plan.

The redistricting plan that could change the racial makeup of the Augusta Commission and the Richmond County school board again failed to win a majority of support from the commission Tuesday.

The vote failed 5-3-2, with Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles and commissioners Joe Jackson and Wayne Guilfoyle opposed. The only white commissioner to support the plan was Matt Aitken, whose District 1 is a majority-black district.

Commissioners Jerry Brigham and Grady Smith abstained from voting, preventing a potential tiebreaking vote by Mayor Deke Copen­haver, who missed a Dec. 6 commission meeting in which a vote on the map failed after it ended in a 5-5 tie. The tactic of abstaining to prevent a tie was frequently used by black commissioners in the mid-2000s to prevent Augusta’s mayor from swinging a 5-5 white-black split in the mayor’s favor.

The map, approved Nov. 29 by an ad hoc committee 12-0, revises existing commission and school board district lines to four majority-white and six majority-black districts. The Board of Education approved the map last week in a 7-3 vote.

Jack­son’s District 6 changes the most in the plan, going from 53 per­cent to 60.6 percent black. The school board member representing the district, Jack Padgett, is also white; Jackson is term-limited.

Brigham served on the committee that approved the map Nov. 29, then voted against it when the commission took it up Dec. 6. After Tuesday’s meeting, he said he wanted to go in a different direction.

“We have an opportunity to bring some peace to this community by looking at a different plan than what’s been presented,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to go forward in a way similar if not like the way we’ve done it in the past,” referring to the redistricting process a decade ago that resulted in five majority-white and five majority-black districts.

The vote isn’t binding on Au­gusta’s legislative delegation, which is expected to present legislation in support of the map when the General Assembly convenes in January. The lack of support could weigh on delegation members and with the U.S. Department of Justice, which also must approve the map.

Qualifying for five commission and five school board posts starts in May.

In other business, the commission voted 7-2-1 to suspend for 90 days the business license of Club 5150, where Ashley Brown was gunned down Sept. 15 by a minor who law enforcement said had been in the club drinking. Lockett wanted the suspension to start in February, but his motion received no second.

The commission also supported part of Lockett’s motion to call for a forensic audit of city affairs. He had called for a sweeping audit of multiple city business deals, sales-tax projects and other matters, but Mason offered a substitute motion to begin with only the city’s involvement in a land swap with Sen. Bill Jackson for
a small corner lot now under the TEE Center parking deck.

Augusta owns the corner parcel of real estate under the deck, and only air rights elsewhere, a move Mason, Lockett and other commissioners have said they were not apprised of until after the changes were made. Au­gus­ta Riverfront, the firm managing the deck, has ties to management of Morris Com­munica­tions, the owner of The Augusta Chronicle.

The commission voted 6-4 to have Russell seek bids from external auditors on the deck deal, with Aitken, Bowles, Jackson and Brigham opposed.

Copenhaver used his tiebreaking power to pass a new 5 percent surcharge for city employees who use tobacco products. Johnson, Mason, Lockett, Hatney and Smith opposed the move.

Lastly, the board heard Russell’s presentation on ways to cut the 2012 budget, which he based on recommendations from a few department heads. The cuts presented by Russell that were recommended by Recreation Director Tom Beck include eliminating nonsenior programs at Sand Hills, Blythe, Brigham and Carrie J. Mays community centers; closing Fleming, Jones and Dyess pools and Diamond Lakes Tennis Center; and eliminating 11 full-time and 26 part-time associated staffers, plus one recreation administrator, one downtown landscaping worker and one maintenance worker at the Municipal Building.

Russell, seeking alternatives if the commission objected to the cuts, said he did not think the recreation cuts would be implemented before the commission returns in early 2012.

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