Ministers' suit fights city's plan

Group claims charter ignored

A ministers group has filed a lawsuit to stop Augusta officials from reorganizing city departments.

The Augusta Baptist Ministers Conference filed suit Friday in Richmond County Superior Court, challenging efforts by members of the Augusta Commission to restructure city government.

In a vote divided along racial lines Wednesday, the commission authorized a reorganization that includes a reduction in force and the elimination of two departments: the Public Service and Licensing and Inspections departments.

The ministers argue that City Administrator Fred Russell, along with the white members of the commission and Mayor Deke Copenhaver, have moved forward with a plan to institute a new personnel, policy and procedures manual "despite concerns that their plan violates provisions in the city charter," they wrote in a news release.

"It is the plaintiffs' contention that certain provisions in the manual have the effect of changing Augusta's form of government, and that such changes effectively constitute a change to Augusta's charter requiring a two-thirds vote of the commission," wrote their attorney, Serena Sparks, who is described as being a former deputy city attorney for Atlanta.

Black commissioners opposed the restructuring. They believe the document changes Augusta's form of government and therefore requires eight votes to pass.

Conflicting legal opinions -- one from the city's general counsel and one from the Office of Legislative Counsel -- are in the office of Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, awaiting his opinion on how many votes are required to give Russell hiring and firing authority, along with other matters. Olens' office has said he will provide a courtesy opinion soon.

Friday's lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, but not damages. A declaratory judgment seeks an official declaration of the status of a matter of controversy, and injunctive relief requires an individual or group to take a specific action or forbids them from doing something.