Barbee e-mail saga continues, slowly

I'll be glad when the political climate in Augusta cools off to just being mean, petty and underhanded again instead of exploitative, vicious and heartless.

It's bound to happen even though 17 people are vying for five seats on the Augusta Commission, which usually generates simple character assassinations, aggravated residency challenges and multiple reports of political sign stealing, the first of which merely titillates everyone's craving for dirt.

The second, a more serious offense, usually comes to naught because proof positive is so hard to come by, and as far as the sign stealing, nobody cares but the victim.

Meanwhile, the clamoring continues for Augusta Housing Authority Board member Dave Barbee's head by ministers and local civil rights groups because of his ill-considered e-mail to developer brothers Clay and Braye Boardman about evacuating the Gilbert Manor housing project to make room for the Medical College of Georgia expansion - a letter that, unfortunately for Mr. Barbee, included a reference to increasing the city's white population.

As it turned out, Mr. Barbee's figures were all wrong, but the damage was done when the e-mail went into cyberspace and the Democrats went into overdrive.

After Mayor Deke Copenhaver asked Mr. Barbee to resign from the housing authority board, he left for the Bahamas and missed all the fun. But there's more to come. The Rev. James L. Reid is on Tuesday's Augusta Commission agenda to speak about the e-mail, and Commissioner Marion Williams wants it read into the minutes.

WE NEITHER CONDEMN NOR CONDONE: The latest emergency meeting to be called in response to the e-mail was the Augusta-Richmond County Human Relations Commission, a body Mr. Barbee served on for 6 years, two of those as chairman, for which he received the board's praise and a plaque. Chairman Robert Smalley said he called the meeting at the behest of Vice Chairwoman Stella Nunnally, who reported receiving prodding from the public to take a stand.

It was really sort of comical because after Mr. Smalley's opening remarks, they all seemed reluctant to say anything, so finally Executive Director Frank Thomas asked whether they were going to issue a formal statement.

Then they went into a long discussion about a motion that would state that Mr. Barbee was no longer on the board. Finally, Michael McCullen, the secretary of the Richmond County Democratic Party, said he failed to see why they were spending so much time on that instead of the content of the e-mail.

Member Renee D'Antignac said she hadn't read the e-mail but had heard about it and thought they should go ahead and vote.

The final motion was to issue a news release stating that Mr. Barbee was no longer a member of the commission and that it did not condone his e-mail message.

THOSE WHO DO NOT LEARN FROM HISTORY ... Former Richmond County Extension agent Clyde Lester introduced Augusta Commissioner Don Grantham, the speaker at last week's Exchange Club meeting, with these words:

"I want to leave you with just one quick thing before I present Don," he said. "I want you to remember the Alamo. I want you to remember George Armstrong Custer. And I want you to remember Jim Whitehead."

SOMETHING TO BRAG ABOUT: After Mr. Grantham had recounted examples of ongoing economic development in Augusta, sales tax projects and the state Transportation Department's $225-plus million redesign of Interstate 20 at Bobby Jones Expressway, Dr. Randy Smith said Mr. Grantham had failed to mention one very important project: the $93 million expansion of University Hospital.

"And I'm happy to say that not one dime of the $93 million is from tax money," Dr. Smith said.

Mr. Grantham praised Dr. Smith and the hospital and noted that the local government no longer has to pay University Hospital $4 million a year for indigent care.

"But that's not a thing to brag about," Dr. Smith said. "We're the only county in the state that doesn't do that."

"Well, maybe we ought to brag about that," Mr. Grantham said.

HE WANTS HIS OWN MOUTHPIECE: New Richmond County school Superintendent Dana Bedden wants to have his own legal counsel and has talked with state Sen. Ed Tarver, an attorney with Hull Towill Norman Barrett & Salley. Mr. Tarver said he'd like the job if there are no legal conflicts.

THERE'S ONE IN EVERY CROWD: Augusta Commissioner Andy Cheek held his third public hearing on the Ellis Street Canal last week, once again to rave reviews from the folks there, with one rare exception from a woman who said she'd rather have a Wal-Mart in downtown Augusta.

TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION: The Simpsons scenario about a monorail in City Ink two weeks ago wasn't so farfetched after all.

Dayton Sherrouse, the executive director of the Augusta Canal Authority, said that when he moved to Augusta in 1968 to take a job as senior planner for the Augusta-Richmond County Planning Commission, there was an ambitious master plan on the books that called for an elevated monorail system.

The plan was shelved. Eventually, the city and Augusta Tomorrow hired American City Corp. to develop a new master plan in 1982 that led to the Riverwalk and the hotel/convention center.

If the city thought I.M. Pei's improvements made downtown gaudy after the malls turned it into a ghost town, just think what an aging, unused monorail might have looked like.

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BRAIN: Meanwhile, Mr. Cheek's bold proposal to turn Ellis Street into a canal has us thinking about other bold ideas that are just as feasible and just as likely to happen:

- The Giant Water Slide. Augusta builds a 100-foot high water slide at 13th Street that flows downhill through Broad Street until you land at Fifth Street, where you pick up a ski-lodge-style chair lift that ferries you back to the top.

Price: $5 million. Economic impact: $50 million (Emergency swimsuit sales, towel rental, increased membership in diet plans, etc.)

- Bumper-car only downtown. A section of downtown Augusta from 13th to Fifth and between Greene and Reynolds streets is blocked off from regular traffic and covered by a giant electrified grid. Bumper cars are then stationed at regular intervals for patrons to use. For First Fridays, the drunken-driving laws are suspended (at least for that section).

Price: $10 million. Economic impact: $60 million (whiplash lawsuits separate).

- Air Hockey Ellis. Instead of being filled with water, Ellis Street is dug up and replaced with block-long air hockey tables strong enough to keep a Frisbee aloft. A goal is placed at the ends of each block for the players to defend, and the surrounding buildings become the walls of the rink. Augusta parlays its status as a disc golf haven to become the world headquarters of a rockin' new sport.

Price: $15 million. Economic impact: $50 gazillion dollars (Serving as the epicenter of trendy new sport, endorsement deals, agents, sales of performance-enhancing drugs, etc.)

Cost estimates completely arbitrary, as usual. All estimates of economic impact derived by the customary methods (guesstimate times two, Magic 8-ball, fudge a little here and there).

All of it would still be less expensive than the canal idea.

City Ink thanks Staff Writers Johnny Edwards and Tom Corwin for their contributions to this week's column.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.

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