We are better than this

Augusta's government fails to keep up with a dynamic city

With the opening of the 38,000-square-foot Augusta Convention Center on Thursday, we now have trade, exhibit and conference space that is worthy of the state’s second-largest city.

 

When will we have a government that is, too?

Several recent episodes illustrate yet again that the city-county government is fundamentally flawed and is holding us back.

The Chronicle learned recently, for instance, that Richmond County Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick has been receiving a yearly $25,941 local supplement on top of his statutory salary.

Unlike recent local supplemental raises for the new sheriff and solicitor-general, Kendrick’s was never approved by the Augusta Commission.

Rather, Kendrick arranged for his supplement in 2008 in a letter he wrote to then-human resources manager Moses McCauley. “Per our conversation,” the letter reads, Kendrick is to get 15 percent more than his highest-paid employee.

Kendrick says that’s how he was told it was done, in conversations with several city officials. But honestly, we’ve never heard of such a thing.

There doesn’t seem to be much sentiment to undo the unapproved raise so long after the fact – and apparently elected officials’ pay can’t be reduced. Still, we certainly don’t buy city Administrator Fred Russell’s shrug of the shoulders that, “Once you give a salary, you can’t take it back.” There are a lot of folks in the private sector who would beg to differ.

But Kendrick really isn’t the story here. It’s a city government that is so out to lunch that it gives a raise on the applicant’s say-so and nothing else, with no regard to written policy.

The government structure invites such silliness. It puts 10 commissioners and a largely ceremonial mayor in charge of a hamstrung city administrator who can’t hire and fire department heads. It also makes that administrator nearly bulletproof by requiring a super-majority of commissioners to fire him.

The accountability in Augusta government is next to nil. As we’ve noted before, when everyone’s in charge, no one’s in charge. For the unscrupulous insider, it’s an open invitation to see what you can get away with.

In another incident, three commissioners are under attack from other commissioners for having violated the ethics code by doing business with the city. Commissioners Grady Smith (plumbing and mechanical), Wayne Guilfoyle (flooring) and Joe Jack­son (locksmithing) have received city business directly or indirectly since taking office.

None of the three appears to have used influence to get the work. But rules are rules – and rules are there precisely to prevent the exercising of such influence, or even the appearance of it.

The issue needs to be investigated fully, and any improperly earned funds returned. But fellow commissioners should also be cautious about needlessly dividing this elective body more than it already is.

The truth is, the consolidated government was designed in the 1990s expressly to divide and impede: an even number of commissioners, with no mayoral vote except in the case of ties (and there never seems to be one!); and an intent to populate the commission with five blacks and five whites, lest one race seek an advantage over the other.

We understand the legitimate historical reasons for that. But the structure of this commission is still a monument to mistrust. And it seems to draw people who insist on using it as directed.

We can do better than this. We are better than this.

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