Augusta commissioners have recently agonized over their public image, which is right up there with Congress’ and Miley Cyrus’.
Egged on by a choice few in their midst, they’re combative, rude,
imperious, cantankerous and overly and overtly personal.
They often treat department heads and other city workers like chattel. They humiliate employees in public forums with extreme rhetoric, unsubstantiated insults and undiluted condescension.
“I couldn’t imagine working in that environment,” one commissioner candidly told us.
One city employee told us in confidence that after about 90 days he wanted to jump out a window to escape.
And now one or more of the worst offenders wring their hands about their image and decorum.
Even the commissioners’ furniture cries out high-handedness: Their raised credenza and throne-like seats are a statement that they are above all others in the commission chambers. It doesn’t take long for that to get to a head that’s already full of itself.
The larger problem, of course, is the commission structure: an even-number 10 commissioners from districts drawn to nearly ensure five whites and five blacks – along with a requirement for a six-vote total for anything to pass, regardless of how many commissioners are present and voting.
It’s a structure designed in the 1990s explicitly to prevent one race from obtaining a political advantage over the other. It’s a monument to mistrust.
It works like a charm. It’s impeding everybody!
Some are suggesting a smaller commission, say of seven members. That would be a good start, though such a change requires state legislative approval.
The commission’s role should also be redefined. There’s too much
micromanaging of city employees, and not enough big-picture discussion. To the extent possible, the city charter should be changed to eliminate day-to-day meddling by commissioners. Hiring and firing should be up to professional city managers.
That said, the truth is that most of what needs to be fixed can be done with a simple commitment on the part of each commissioner to treat others with respect and dignity.
The Augusta Commission doesn’t have a public relations problem. It has a human relations one.
When things do get personal or out of hand, the gavel needs to come down swift and sure. Mayor Deke Copenhaver, despite a genteel demeanor and soft touch, has done a remarkable job over the years of keeping a lid on the shenanigans. But at a recent meeting from which he was absent, the monologues and the abuse of city employees was sadly unchecked. General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie, in particular, was absolutely savaged by several commissioners and called a liar.
“I’m truly embarrassed to be on the commission at this time,” admitted Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle.
Several concerned citizens have suggested diversity/leadership training, and have even chatted about it with national consultant Omar Neal, a former mayor of Tuskegee, Ala., who helps groups with such things as conflict management, communications and team-building.
There’s already been push-back from those who would prefer local expertise. Why not invite proposals from both local and national experts? Locally, we can recommend one source of diversity/leadership training, and that’s the Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Augusta program. It specializes in team building and, obviously, leadership training.
Whatever course it takes, we’d strongly urge the commission to seek outside help in improving its performance. There’s absolutely no shame in it; the corporate world does it all the time, to great effect.
The first step is to admit you have a problem – and the commission has at least done that.