It's amazing Augusta isn't a city made up entirely of bald people. For years, its politics made most of us want to pull our hair out.
And for good reason: The consolidated government set up in the 1990s was always a monument to mistrust. Got to have five black commissioners, five white. Can't pass anything with a simple majority of commissioners voting; has to be at least six commissioners to include the "other" side. The city administrator can't hire and fire department heads; you need six commissioners, and a public bloodletting, for that. The mayor can vote only in the case of a tie on the commission -- and the losing side just might walk out to prevent one; more 5-to-4 votes than the Supreme Court.
Not much got done, and everyone had an awful time not doing it.
What a difference a few election cycles, and a few tufts of hair, can make.
Today, the commission is congenial and cooperative -- and, oh yes, productive. And it's showing tangible results: Buildings have been cleared and earth moved downtown for the new trade, exhibit and event center, a hotel and a parking garage. Some $37 million has been dedicated to redevelopment in the Laney-Walker area. A new judicial center is being built and a new law enforcement building in the works. Commission meetings that used to stretch into the night are now relatively short and sweet.
Most important, the clouds have parted and the political climate is perhaps as welcoming as any in memory.
We can point to changes on the commission for much of that. But it all started with Mayor Deke Copenhaver's election to a partial term in 2005 and a four-year term in 2006. As he seeks re-election to his last term Nov. 2 -- a re-election we strongly urge -- it's already clear history will remember him as the difference-maker that he is, and one of the most popular politicians in this town's storied history.
The beautiful thing about it is how he's done it: with an unflappable demeanor, a steady hand and an unbending belief in the power of gentle persuasion.
The oddly controversial, on-again-off-again TEE center -- and by extension, the hotel, parking garage and the related Laney-Walker revitalization plans -- might never have become reality without Copenhaver's quiet but girded determination and the respect he exhibits even to those who disagree vehemently.
Few communities around the country can truly say, yes, they are better off now than they were four years ago. Augusta is -- at least as much as any community can be after the financial 9-11 of 2008.
Copenhaver's public and private leadership -- the latter coming in such things as ceaselessly promoting positive events and developments, hosting a monthly prayer breakfast and more -- has not only helped Augusta weather the national economy's bumpy ride, but it's also covered up the local government's continued flaws. We simply must give the city administrator hiring and firing authority over department heads, for instance.
We always wondered whether our problems at City Hall were the result of a dysfunctional charter or poor leadership. As it turns out, it was both. Under Copenhaver, though, the problems with the government structure have been obscured. We should be fortunate enough to have Mayor Copenhaver around another four years -- but in that time, we need to fix the systemic problems.
After all, there may never be another one like him.