Timing is everything, and so far city Administrator Fred Russell’s timing has been fortuitous.
If at least six Augusta Commission members got mad at him at the same time, he’d be out of a job. Two years ago, four commissioners voted to fire him because they were dissatisfied with his reorganization plan and angry about the hefty raises he’d given to some employees. Commissioners who voted against firing Russell said they were afraid of who might succeed him.
Now commissioners are faulting Russell for not informing them in a timely manner about an Urban Renewal Agreement that would allow the city to save money on financing Marble Palace renovations but require downtown Augusta to be designated a slum.
They also say Russell didn’t keep them in the loop about the Augusta Convention Center contract and Reynolds Street parking deck until controversies came calling.
But I guess he’s lucky because they’re not openly calling for his head.
At Tuesday’s legal meeting, they asked Russell to leave the room, and he wasn’t happy about it one bit.
HOW MANY MILLIONS CAN FIT IN A CAN OF WORMS? Also Tuesday, when the matter of having a panel of experts on urban revitalization projects visit to review the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem project came up, Commissioner Bill Lockett said having Housing and Neighborhood Development Director Chester Wheeler choose the experts would be like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.
Russell said he didn’t want to have anything to do with the review. So commissioners voted – on Russell’s recommendation – to have the city’s new planning and zoning director assemble experts with experience in urban renewal projects in cities such as Baltimore.
Before the vote, Commissioner Alvin Mason said the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem project lacked accountability and lamented the fact that the Urban Renewal Agency, the board that was supposed to oversee the project, is defunct because the terms of the appointees have expired. He also asked whatever happened to the Citizens Advisory Board to the housing department that commissioners voted to reinstate last year. The answer was that commissioners haven’t appointed the members.
Wheeler apparently doesn’t think he needs oversight. At least he hasn’t until now. Shortly after he became director in 2007, he refused to meet with the very active Citizens Advisory Committee and disbanded it. Last year, the city had to refund $344,233 because groups involved in neighborhood revitalization didn’t meet U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations. That’s when Lockett asked for the advisory committee to be reformed.
You will recall, Wheeler opened a can of worms when he asked commissioners to approve a $2.5 million loan to keep the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem project going until 2015, when more money will be available. That caused folks, Mason among them, to sit up, take notice and start asking some probing questions.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ANIC? A decade ago, the Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp. was building houses in the Laney-Walker area and making headlines because of the many connections between its employees, contractors, board appointees and money, directly or indirectly, to its vice chairman, then-state Sen. Charles Walker.
Walker was supported in his quest for re-election by those who did business with the nonprofit corporation. Many contributed to his failed effort to stay in the state Senate.
ANIC was created in 1999 after Walker, as Senate majority leader, helped bring $20 million in state tax money to Augusta to help revitalize the blighted area off Laney-Walker Boulevard. The money also helped fund other projects, including Springfield Village, Augusta Common and Antioch Ministries.
ANIC was supposed to get an additional $10 million, but payment was blocked in the Legislature after Walker went to prison.
In 2003, the Georgia Insurance Commissioner’s Office issued a cease-and-desist order against Global Bonding Co., a Las Vegas surety bond company that was supposed to ensure pay and performance for completion of a building on Laney-Walker Boulevard, a project being funded by ANIC with state tax money. Global stood accused of selling insurance without a license and deceptively soliciting surety-bond business.
In 2004, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue asked the state’s inspector general to open an inquiry to determine whether an investigation was warranted. Meanwhile, the corporation kept building houses, apartments and condos and faded from the news. Recently, however, some folks were saying ANIC was out of business.
“In terms of any development going on, there’s no question it’s slowed down, but we’re not out of business,” said Henry Ingram, the chairman of the ANIC board. “We won’t be doing any speculative building, but we’re actively still in business.”
ANIC’s mission changed when the city gave a charge to Chester Wheeler to develop houses in the Laney-Walker area, Ingram said. ANIC couldn’t compete with the city’s incentives – its buy-down on interest and on down payments.
“We still have probably $8 million in assets,” he said. “We have Olive Pointe apartment complex behind T.W. Josey High School; the ANIC Building on Laney-Walker, which houses the city housing department and the tag office; 78 to 80 parcels of land; and the Enclave condo development at James Brown Boulevard and D’Antignac Street. We’ve sold three units and have one under contract. It’s a nice complex.”
MARSHALLS, MAGISTRATES, MOTTOS AND MEMORIES: Everybody who’s anybody in judicial and law enforcement circles, along with a sprinkling of political candidates, were at the annual Hot Dog Luncheon at the Boathouse on Friday.
State Court Solicitor Kelly McIntyre, State Court Judge David Watkins and Nathan Jolles were serving up hot dogs. Twelfth Congressional District Republican candidate Rick Allen, U.S. Senate Republican candidate Eugene Yu and state House District 127 candidate Brian Prince were seeing and being seen. New Department of Corrections board member Lee Anderson was hail fellow well met. Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree and Chief Deputy Pat Clayton also made an appearance.
Langdon Atkins, a former chief probation officer for the Augusta Judicial Circuit, was also there. He’s been in a wheel chair since a stroke five years ago. He and late attorney Howard Jolles started the annual hot dog luncheon in 1990.
Augusta Chronicle government reporter Susan McCord and I sat with Neita and Brian Mulherin. Many people came over to speak to them, including attorney Pat Rice, who worked for Brian’s Rock-a-Dry-Baby diaper service before he went to college. He said he delivered the clean diapers and picked up the soiled ones in a plastic bag that too often broke before he could get them into the truck.
Brian said his business motto was “Your baby’s poo is our bread and butter.”
One man came over that I knew very well but could not remember by name. Neita, Brian and I laughed and talked to him like we were long-lost friends. When he left, I turned to Neita and said, “What is his name?” She said, “I can’t remember,” then turned to Brian and said, “What is his name?” Brian said, “I can’t remember.”
That’s what happens eventually.