Will commission clashes be moved to new venue?

Things have gone from bad to worse on the Augusta Commission. The racial divide is so wide, commissioners aren't even trying to bridge it anymore.

The latest wave of mistrust started when city officials updated the employee manual and included language authorizing the city administrator to hire and fire city employees, including department heads. The part about department heads was later deleted. The revised manual gives the administrator "exclusive" authority to recommend the hiring and firing of department directors, with commissioners having the final say.

The board's four black commissioners, most of the Richmond County legislative delegation and the black community see the changes, including Administrator Fred Russell 's proposed reorganization plan, as a sly attempt to change the structure of the government without the required eight commission votes or legislation in the General Assembly. Russell and the white commissioners see it as a way to save money to avoid a property-tax increase and a raid on reserve funds. As a result, we have dueling legal opinions, a lawsuit against the mayor and the six white commissioners who approved the manual, and lots of hard feelings.

Russell's reorganization plan was projected to save $1.5 million if implemented in February, but because it is bogged down in controversy, hopes of potential savings are waning by the day.

DON'T BOTHER, They're Here: If all that weren't bad enough, as the date approaches for dedicating the Augusta Judicial Center and John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse, city Attorney Andrew MacKenzie asked commissioners to vote to change the commission meeting place from "at the courthouse" to the "Municipal Building," a change never incorporated into the city's charter.

Another wave of paranoia struck.

Commissioner Bill Lockett proceeded to read sections of the city code adopted since consolidation, stating that the commission meetings would be held in the Municipal Building.

"Exhibit B, Section 1, dash 2 dash 36: Duties of the Administrator..."

Commissioner Alvin Mason mistakenly thought commissioners were being asked to meet at the judicial center and scolded Russell for not bringing it up earlier.

"The only thing against this is there's an appropriate way to operate, and this is what causes some of these issues that you have up here on this commission," he said. "You can help heal the divide that's here by operating appropriately. That's all I'm asking you to do."

(I think Mason owes Russell two apologies. One for upbraiding him in public when he didn't know what he was talking about, and again for blaming Russell for commissioners' bad behavior.)

Mayor Deke Copenhaver then asked MacKenzie to explain why the change was needed, and the attorney said he was glad Lockett brought up code amendments that purported to change the location of commission meetings.

"For whatever reason, the local act was never amended when those changes were made," he said. "This is an attempt just to clean up some of the minor language to strike that out because up until this point there was never a time in which the commission location meetings and courthouse meeting was different.

"And so, this is just to reflect the removal of the words 'at the courthouse' so the commission does not have to move over to the new judicial center, which will become the new courthouse."

Unmoved by the explanation, Lockett continued to match wits with the attorney, but lost.

Commissioner Jerry Brigham then asked whether they would be required to meet at the judicial center if they didn't make the change.

"Well, if you don't change location in the local act, it still will reflect that the commission shall meet at the courthouse," MacKenzie said. "It would be my recommendation that you continue to meet at the courthouse to be in compliance with that statute. I think it would be a better move to just amend that language to strike out the words 'at the courthouse.' "

The motion to approve MacKenzie's recommendation failed 6-3, with Mason, Lockett and Corey Johnson voting no.

The next regular commission meeting is May 3, and unless something changes it will be at the John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse, the thought of which inspired ...

NIGHTMARE ON NINTH STREET: The lobby of the new courthouse, where commissioners and the mayor are seated on scaffolds left over from the construction. City officials and spectators sit in rows of folding chairs beneath.

Act I

(Boy King Copenhaver calls the meeting to order.)

Mayor: The Rev. K. Bee will lead us in prayer.

The Rev. Bee: Our heavenly father, we gather here today not in the usual meeting place because some wolves in sheep's clothing are trying to pull the wool over our eyes and trick us into changing our time-honored Magna Charter. Oh Lord, we see the handwriting on the wall. ...

(A large woman enters the lobby)

Woman: Is this where you pay your water bill?

Mayor: No, ma'am. That's over at the Municipal Building on Greene Street.

Woman: I done been over there. The door was locked, so I thought they'd moved over here.

Mayor: Yes, ma'am. It's after 5 o'clock. They close at 5.

Woman: Well, why didn't somebody say so? (Exits)

Mayor: Rev. Bee, please continue your prayer.

Rev. Bee: I was about to wind it up, except to say we've been like Daniel in the lion's den, Jonah in the belly of a whale, the man who came to dinner, not to mention Lazarus. But we're awake now. Praise the Lord.

Mayor: Thank you, Rev. Bee, I have a framed certificate to give you, but I'd have to get down off this 40-foot scaffold.

(Loud clanging sounds disrupt the meeting as deputies lead a dozen jail inmates in orange jumpsuits toward holding cells.)

Mayor: Is all that noise necessary, deputy?

(An inmate steps forward and begins to sing.)

On a long lonesome journey I'm going

Oh darling, and please don't you cry

Though in shackles and chains they will take me

In prison to stay, till I die.

Act II

MAYOR: Now to our regular agenda and item 32: An ordinance of the Board of Commissioners of Augusta, Georgia, to Amend an Act entitled 'An act to create a Board of Commissioners for Roads and Revenues for the County of Richmond.'

(Mayor recognizes Commissioner Lockett.)

Lockett: Augusta-Richmond County Code, Section 1, dash 2, dash 40 re-adopted July 10, 2007, Chapter 2 Administrator, Article 1, Commission ...

(Two men with last wills and testaments in their hands rush in demanding to know where the Probate Court is. Marshals direct them upstairs.)

Lockett: Section 1, dash 2, says the meeting time and place for committees, all commission regular meetings shall be held on the first and third ...

(Halfway up the stairs the two men attack each other; then stop and have a dueling duet)

First Man: I'm not a man to be thwarted

By what I have heard here today,

Believe me, I haven't yet started

And where there's a will, there's a way.

Second Man: And I am a man with an iron will

And that is all I have to say,

I will certainly have my will

For where there's a will, there's a way.

First Man: The old's brains are constantly teeming

With plots of perpetual care,

Of wills, codicil they are scheming

To punish an ungrateful heir.

Together: But many a will has been broken

Because some discontent heir

Whose portion has been but a token

Sued, saying the will was unfair.

Lockett: ...Tuesday of each month at the Municipal Building, Lee Beard Commission chambers, and it was amended April 2010 ...

Mayor: This is not working. And didn't the lawyer in Atlanta say I am the boss and CEO? I hereby adjourn this meeting.

As the crowd disperses, he sings:

I'm Boy King the First, I am

Boy King the First. I am, I am

I crowned myself to run the show

When a lawyer in the Capitol

Made me the boss and CEO

He wouldn't have a Fred

Or a board to balk and waver

So I'm the first Boy King, I'm Deke Copenhaver!

Reach Sylvia Cooper at sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.

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