Rally questions actions of commission, lawmakers

Monday’s rally on the steps of the Augusta-Richmond County Judicial Center and John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse was “not a protest,” Augusta Commission member Alvin Mason said to a group of about 100 gathered.

Still, “there is plenty that we could protest about,” Mason added.

The rally was advertised by former Mason campaign manager Tanya Barnhill as a way to “send a strong message that the community will not accept the many changes that have occurred as a result of commission votes and action by the state delegation.”

Mason, the event’s main speaker, objected to “irresponsible journalism used to try and thwart this rally” by labeling it a protest.

He and Commissioner Bill Lockett, who have voted against several of the items Mason cited as worthy of protest, were the only
commission members to attend.

Issues that were part of Monday’s “call to action” included Augusta’s construction of the Trade, Exhibit and Event Center and its parking deck, “built on land we don’t own, which by the way has a $7 million lien on it,” Mason said.

The commission voted in December to hire an external forensic auditor to examine the parking deck project, which originally was to go on land donated to the city.

Jim Plunkett, special counsel for the city on the project, has said the donation of air rights, or space, instead of land was a creative means of preserving the tax-exempt status of bonds issued for it, while the landowner later offered to donate the land to the Augusta Land Bank Authority.

Also worthy of protest was last year’s commission vote to reorganize city government, Mason said. The reorganization “has not legitimately saved a dime,” he contended, and led to $350,000 in employee raises, including one to Recreation Director Tom Beck, whom the commission voted recently to fire.

Last, “We’re about to reduce your garbage service, and charge you more for it,” Mason said.

A vote on the city’s 2013 solid-waste collection contract, its first in eight years, will go before the commission in the coming weeks.

Mason went on to charge the crowd with getting friends registered to vote in elections in July and November. Five commission posts, including Lockett’s, and five school board seats are up this year.

Mason said more than 50,000 eligible Augustans are not registered to vote.

The Rev. Chris Waters, of Thankful Baptist Church, said after the rally that white commissioners representing a minority of Augustans were making decisions for the black majority.

“The tone that it took certainly is an expression of the frustrations of many in the community,” Waters said of Mason’s speech.

Asked whether he agreed with Mason’s message, sheriff’s Capt. Scott Peebles, who is running for sheriff, said after the rally that “voters need to be involved in the process.”

Rep. Quincy Murphy, D-Augusta, said all the issues Mason raised fell along racial lines when the commission voted on them.

The speech served to “motivate the citizens of Augusta-Richmond County to become involved in the political process,” Murphy said.

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