A new courthouse era upon us

Yogi Berra could have been talking about the Augusta Commission when he said, "It's like déjà vu all over again."

At the commission's legal administration committee meeting, Commissioner Bill Lockett asked once again why commissioners couldn't just vote to strike "at the courthouse" from an ordinance that would allow them to continue to meet at the Municipal Building without the part authorizing them to pass resolutions designating the administrator's duties.

And City Attorney Andrew MacKenzie and City Administrator Fred Russell explained once again that the part about the administrator's duties had been in effect since 1980, and that all they'd be doing now was striking the words "at the courthouse" from the ordinance.

Lockett wasn't buying it. He said the proposal the attorney had given them was a charter change that required a two-thirds vote.

"But also included in that charter change is giving this body authorization to create resolutions detailing the administrator's duties," he said. "The resolution requires six votes. So we're going to vote on the charter change which requires eight votes to give this body the authority to give the administrator whatever duties they want with six votes. And that's what we've been fighting the last month."

Then Lockett announced he would not vote for any ordinance proposed concerning the government's ongoing reorganization until a judge ruled on the legality of the commission's recent votes on it and the administrator's enhanced powers.

Lockett suggested that MacKenzie was influencing the outcomes of the ordinances through his rulings as commission parliamentarian and legal counsel.

"A professional who can render advice and opinions without having an interest in the outcome. That is the definition of a parliamentarian," he said, adding that was the way he liked to see it but it seemed that 99.44 percent of the decisions have been in opposition to what he was trying to get.

"Now, are you doing this as a parliamentarian?" he asked MacKenzie. "Are you ... using your legalese to come up with the result that you or others may want?"

MacKenzie didn't say yes, and he didn't say no. What I think he said was if there was some kind of conflict "on the parliamentarian procedure" he'd have to look at it.

Then Lockett chastised Russell, who'd just briefed the finance committee on the city's quarterly financial report, for not giving them the report earlier so they'd have time to study it.

So, I sat at my keyboard Friday wondering just how many times I could write the same story without going bonkers.

DIVINE INTERVENTION: Then the phone rang. It was the honorable Superior Court Judge Jim Blanchard .

I'd e-mailed him a few weeks ago after reading he'd presided over the last trial in the Greene Street courthouse. I wanted to know whether he knew who presided over the first one. When he called, he said he'd asked Richmond County Clerk of Court Elaine Johnson to do some research and now possessed copies of historical court documents going all the way back to the first one filed in Richmond County on March 27, 1787. Within a few hours, after trips to the Columbia County Courthouse and the new courthouse in Augusta, I held more court history in my hands than you could shake a gavel at.

While at the Augusta courthouse, over the front entrance spelled out in large letters, I saw "John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse" and learned that Richmond County State Court Judge David Watkins had moved into the new facility. You will recall, Watkins had said, after seeing Ruffin's name on a standalone sign outside and not on the building, he would not move into it because it was an insult to the renowned black jurist.

HELL NO, I WON'T GO: Well, as it turned out, Watkins isn't the only Richmond County court official who ever balked at moving into a new courthouse. Right there on top of the documents was an Oct. 18, 1957, article from The Augusta Chronicle , published after the 1821 courthouse closed.

"The refusal of Superior Court Clerk Dan O'Connor to move his offices from the old courthouse to the new City-County Bldg., has the Commission in a quandary,

"Among other things, the Commission wants to save a fancy rent by shifting the probation office from a commercial site at 126 Seventh St. to the suite now occupied by Mr. O'Connor.

"And the county cannot pay the firm outfitting the clerk's plush new offices until he moves in and the expensive furnishings have been placed in position.

Therefore, the Commission reluctantly has ordered the county attorney to take legal action in an attempt to force Mr. O'Connor to vacate the old building, now deserted except for his office."

The next day, The Chronicle reported "O'Connor agrees to move offices from courthouse"

"Moving of equipment of Superior Court Clerk Dan O'Connor from the old courthouse to the City-County Bldg. will begin Monday morning. Henry W. Poteet, chairman of the County Commission, said Friday night.

"Contemplated legal action by county attorney to force O'Connor to move was thus averted by the amicable agreement."

The articles didn't say why O'Connor didn't want to move. Johnson said if anyone would know it would be former Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr. , but the judge said the only thing he ever heard is that O'Connor said he was happy where he was.

PICTURE THIS: On Nov. 17, 1957, a few weeks before the building was dedicated, The Chronicle devoted an entire page with photos and an article headlined "Is plush building too lavish for city?" Above the headline was this caption: "Or is it too small?"

There is a photo of City Judge Gordon W. Chambers at his desk. Another shows Sheriff Henry W. Hartley and deputies C.A. Young , J.C. Dinkins and W.L. Hamilton in the Municipal Courtroom. In another Bernard F. Martin and Carol Ford turn out copies of real estate transactions in the Photostat room "one of many special features in new building." And Mrs. Emma Fuller , secretary to a long line of mayors, is pictured delivering mail to the mayor's desk. Beneath the photo is this description: The mayor's office, on eighth floor of Government Building, is cypress paneled, modernisticaly furnished in blue and brown tones.

FIRST AND LAST: Monday, Sept. 16, 1957, the first grand jury was sworn in with Superior Court Judges F. Frederick Kennedy and G.C. Anderson presiding.

Grand jurors were Clayton P. Boardman Jr., W.H. McDaniel, W.J. Branan, Ronald E. Corbitt, George T. Skinner, John H. Scharnitsky, H. Parks Hendee, Maxwell Hill, J.V. Cranford, George R. Sibley Jr., Noble A. Hull, Homer C. Day, Irvin J. Daitch, J. Milo Hatch, F.L. Lancaster, Sam Strauss, Theo M. Reid, Paschal T. Wilson, R.C. Beattie, Alex Windsor, Chas. V. Brega, Russell K. Whaley Jr. and Robt. S. Woodhurst Jr.

The first criminal trial in the new building featured The State vs. Herman Stallings indicted on three counts of larceny from the house over $50. Fleming was Stallings' attorney. The jury found Stallings guilty of two counts of larceny from the house over $50 and one count of guilty of larceny from the house of less than $50. W.S. Lanier was foreman of the jury.

The first civil jury trial was Catherine Tutt vs. Eugene Tutt , et al. The jury awarded Catherine Tutt $969.95. Albert J. Rosenthal was foreman.

The first domestic jury trial was Jeannette W. Pinion vs. Charles Pinion . The jury found sufficient proof to grant Charles Pinion a divorce on his crossaction. Rosenthal was foreman.

In the last criminal trial in the Greene Street courthouse Adrian Edward Pressley was found guilty of two counts of cruelty to children in the second degree and sentenced to 10 years in prison on each count. Judge Blanchard presided.

The last civil trial there was the Department of Transportation vs. Waffle House Inc. The verdict favored Waffle House to the tune of $500,000. Judge Sheryl B. Jolly presided.

City Ink thanks Judge Jim Blanchard, Richmond County Clerk of Court Elaine Johnson and clerk's office Operations Manager Peggy Carroll for their contributions this week .

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