Half the time over the last year, at least one Augusta elected official – a commissioner or the mayor – skipped a meeting, according to attendance records analyzed by The Augusta Chronicle.
The worst offender was Commissioner J.R. Hatney, who is completing a second and final consecutive term representing Super District 9. Hatney was absent 18 times from August 2011 to July 2012, missing nine meetings of the full commission and nine commission committee meetings.
“Every time I can, I’m here,” said Hatney, pastor of Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church, declining to elaborate on his absences as he left a Thursday called commission meeting to set the millage rate.
The commission and its committees meet often, at least 142 scheduled times in the 12 months analyzed. In 71 of those meetings, at least one elected official was absent.
Five commission committee meetings and a called legal meeting are held consecutively on the second and last Mondays of each month and regular commission meetings are scheduled on the first and third Tuesdays.
Hatney’s fellow commissioners offered no excuses or explanations for his absences, but a few thought a commissioner who skips meetings might be missing out on something.
“You need to be present in order to make informed decisions,” Commissioner Bill Lockett said. Lockett, the only officially retired commissioner, has the highest attendance rate of them all, missing only a single commission meeting the entire year. That was when he was attending training for Georgia elected officials, Lockett said.
“If you’re not here, you don’t know what’s discussed,” he said. “New ideas, good ideas could be presented, and if you’re not there, you don’t have an opportunity to take advantage of that.”
Lockett saw three meetings of the committee he chairs, administrative services, canceled for lack of a quorum when two of the committee’s other commissioner members, Alvin Mason and Matt Aitken, didn’t show.
Absent from Thursday’s called meeting and out for a eighth consecutive meeting was Mason, who had 17 absences during the period examined.
Augusta City Clerk Lena Bonner said Mason informed her June 28 that he’d be out until Aug. 25 on “TDY” or temporary duty assignment connected to his job with the U.S. Department of Defense. By Aug. 25, Mason, who has talked of running for mayor, will have a string of 12 consecutive absences, and he has missed five meetings of the committee he chairs, Engineering Services, in 12 months.
Augusta political science professor and longtime government observer Ralph Walker said voters who keep re-electing absentee officials might just deserve what they get.
“If you run for the office, you should be willing to serve; you need to be there,” Walker said.
Hatney, Mason and the fourth-worst offender, Commissioner Corey Johnson, all are term-limited after completing their second consecutive term and can’t run again for at least four years.
No so for Aitken, who has made it known that his meeting absences, some 13 over the year, are largely due to his job, shift work at Olin Chemical. Aitken, known to bring his young daughter to meetings on occasion when he needs to, has missed five meetings this year and faces three announced opponents for his District 1 commission post in the November election.
Lockett, who is unopposed so far for his District 5 commission seat which comes up for election in November, said candidates ought to keep in mind the demands of the office on their time.
“One should take into consideration when he or she decides to run for office, that he has ample time for the job,” Lockett said.
Some officials have more opportunities to miss, as well. Unlike the rest of the commission, Johnson serves on three committees after Hatney decided he didn’t want to chair public services earlier this year. That gave the District 2 commissioner 21 more meetings to attend than his fellow commissioners. He missed a total of 12 through the year.
“It could be vacation, it could be illness,” Johnson said. “You just can’t bring that and expose (illness) to everybody. You’ve got to be here to at least know what’s going on.“
The commissioners aren’t required to attend by state or local laws, which specify only the numbers needed present to constitute a quorum that can take official action.
They are paid, however.
Each commissioner earns from $12,000 to $16,537 annually based on seniority and experience, plus expenses, most in addition to their full-time jobs. The current mayor pro-tem, Joe Bowles, draws $23,000 while the mayor earns $75,845.
Attendance demands on Mayor Deke Copenhaver are fewer, as he isn’t required to be at committee meetings. Copenhaver missed five of the 42 commission and called commission meetings he’s expected to preside over.
Bowles, who missed six meetings over the year, said attendance at committee meetings was important but not always for the reasons Lockett specified.
“It’s very valuable if you have concerns on pertinent items, but it’s not impossible to get that information outside committee meetings,” he said.
Bowles added that it’s sometimes tricky with a young family and a full-time career to make it to meetings, especially when the group gets late notice for meetings such as Thursday’s, which nine of the 10 commissioners, plus Copenhaver, attended.
Commissioners Grady Smith, Jerry Brigham and Wayne Guilfoyle each missed five meetings during the period. Brigham and Commissioner Joe Jackson, who had three absences, are term limited.
Brigham said being out meant a commissioner’s constituents were not being represented.
“You’re missing the input of their constituents if they’re not there,” he said.