Despite closed doors, I've still seen plenty

During the recent debate on whether city of Augusta employees should be paid for three furlough days they had to take earlier this year, Commissioner Bill Lockett strongly argued in favor of the payments and expressed disillusionment that some commission members didn’t feel the same..

“I’m thinking I’m in my 22nd month here,” he said. “I’ve pretty much seen it all.”

He didn’t elaborate on that point, but I’m thinking it has something to do with a lack of trust and being outvoted by the majority on issues he cares about.

Anyway, his comments got me to thinking. I’m going into my 22nd year here and I’ve pretty much seen it all too.

But not quite because, for one thing, so much of it has gone on and still goes on behind closed doors.

SON, I SAY SON, CLOSE THAT DOOR: Before consolidation of Augusta and Richmond County, it was common practice for commission members to meet at the Green Meadows clubhouse and elsewhere to get things worked out ahead of time. On commission meeting days, they’d hold pre-meetings which lasted for hours. They said they were discussing legal matters. We all knew that wasn’t all they were discussing, but County Attorney Bob Daniels, the wiliest politician of them all, sanctioned it, so there was nothing anybody could do about it.

Out of boredom, I started logging the times they spent in pre-meetings and in open meetings and documented 40 percent spent behind closed doors in 1994. So after his election as commission chairman in 1995, Larry Sconyers pledged to spend less time doing business behind closed doors, but couldn’t because, he said, he couldn’t get Commissioner Moses Todd to shut up. But there were still secret meetings at Sconyers Bar-B-Que.

… FOR WHICH I WILL GLADLY PAY YOU TUESDAY: Skirting the Open Meetings Law is only one facet of the political spectrum in Augusta.

For years, it was rife with leaders who didn’t lead when it came to paying taxes and bills. Commissioners, council members, state lawmakers and even congressional candidates were caught in The Chronicle’s pre-election dragnet of deadbeats. I could name names, but I’d run out of space.

One memorable event was the repossession of Todd’s leased vehicle during a commission meeting.

STEALING, WHEELING AND DEALING: There had also been a long-standing tradition of sticky fingers at the county-run garage which led to missing inventory, especially tires. When I started poking around, they loaded all the records on a big truck that was supposed to be taken to the landfill the next morning. However, an employee blew the whistle, and the GBI was there to intercept the truck. A couple of employees were charged with theft but got off with slaps on the wrists while the whistleblower got fired. I’ve always hated that.

Meanwhile, the GBI investigation ground to a halt because all the confiscated records were so screwed up they couldn’t do anything with them. Commissioner Alvin Mason, who’s so bent out of shape that all the PDQ’s weren’t filled out in the latest government reorganization, would have had apoplexy over those records.

Then there was the sidewalk building program of the early 1990s, a legal way to funnel some of the SPLOST money to then-Sen. Charles Walker through his Speedy Temporary Employment Agency. One example of the sidewalk crew’s work was along Windsor Spring Road. They built the sidewalks up to either side of a bridge and stopped, so the school children had to walk into the road on the bridge to get to the next stretch of sidewalk. They also built a retaining wall along Ingleside Drive that had to be torn down and redone because it could have collapsed on someone walking by.

And there have been the big out-of-town companies who wined and dined commission members, bought ads with their companies and donated money to their pet projects while decisions were being made involving multi-million-dollar contracts. CH2MHILL and Operations Management International, which got contracts to manage the city’s water construction projects and wastewater plant, hosted a dinner in Atlanta for Augusta officials. One person there said “the lobsters were so big, they needed to be on leashes.”

But the worst deals I know of were utility bond swaps, or derivatives, the kind of unregulated financial voodoo that nobody understands but the ones selling them. It’s a case of “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” and many municipalities across the country have been robbed blind as a result.

Augusta did two swaps, and lost big on the first one before it was refunded in 2007. On the second one, an agent for Gardnyr Michael Capital Inc. convinced then-Commissioner Richard Colclough a $160-million bond swap would be the best thing for Augusta since buttered bread.

Colclough, with the help of slick consultants, convinced a majority of commission members to vote for the swap. One from Pennsylvania assured them that if interest rates went up, Augusta would make millions. So the attorneys took home big fat paychecks, and Augusta seemed such a fertile field to keep plowing, Gardnyr Michael set up an office on Courthouse Lane. But Commissioners Don Grantham and Jerry Brigham who voted against the swap and understood the risk convinced their colleagues to get out of it in 2007.

THIS PROJECT SHOULD BE ON HGTV: We’re still sleeping on the screened-in porch with the dogs while the house is being painted inside. Thankfully, the weather’s been perfect, except for last Monday which was a two-dog night. It’s taken longer than expected here in the land of the Peter Principle because our painter, Larry Johns, has had to do so many repairs, not the least of which is to replace the laundry room floor.

And we’ve hit a few snags concerning paint color. I wanted all neutral. Ernie wanted a rainbow. We compromised. The bedrooms are pale denim blue, aqua and rose, but I couldn’t find the perfect colors for the rest of the house.

I started with Distant Tan, but it looked too gray, so I tried Tropical Tan, and it was too light, as was Toasted Cashew. Stepping Stones was too dark, so I trended toward golds, starting with Champagne Gold and Navajo White which were also too light.

I became so frustrated, I told Larry I was going to mix all the samples in a big bucket and paint everything that color. Larry said his uncle, E.T. “Junior” Rabun, also a painter from down in the panhandle of south Warren County, did that very thing one time. He mixed all the paint left over from his jobs that year and painted his house with it. In the morning, it looked blue, but in the evening it looked green. Larry said, he and his wife, Frances, called it “the mood house’ because it was like a mood ring.

NOW FOR THE BAD NEWS: Ernie’s going to have to have the arteries in his legs cleaned out. They’re seriously blocked. The doctor in Rome where he got the bad news said he would have to have surgery. We were desperate to find a vascular surgeon in Augusta and by divine intervention did in Dr. Gautam Agarwal at GHSU Cardiovascular Center. We saw him last week, and he will try the less invasive treatment first and go into his artery to see whether he can decrease the blockages with stints.

We were very impressed with Agarwal and his team, and the center in general. On the way home, I read the names of the doctors there aloud – Gautam Agarwal, Albert Chang, Vijay Patel.

“Does this say something about the American education system?” I asked.

“Yes,” Ernie replied. “It says in our schools’ children are learning to wear their pants hanging down below their underwear.”

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Sun, 12/04/2016 - 20:05

Pardon our mess