– from the Decorum of Debate section of the Augusta Commission Rules of Procedure, adopted July 3, 1996
Unfortunately, the statement above does not resemble in any way the caustic and damaging tone set forth by our current Augusta Commission, where the motives of our staff are publicly attacked by individual commissioners who seem hell-bent on belittling, berating and bullying city employees.
I have long shared with the public and our commissioners that I believe it is extremely duplicitous to ask city employees to adhere to rules and procedures governing their actions if elected officials do not first demonstrate the ability to hold ourselves accountable to those rules of procedure that govern our own behavior.
What message does it send to our community’s youth when they are asked to sign no-bullying contracts in their schools while their elected officials continue to act in this manner, while refusing to even take the small step of re-affirming the Code of Conduct already in place?
It sends the message that elected officials can act any way they see fit without consequences. I would like to share with our citizens just how damaging the consequences of these actions can be for all of us.
After being elected to office, every official in the state must complete a Newly Elected Official training course. In the legal portion of the course, new officials are reminded repeatedly never to play out personnel issues publicly. Doing so creates a tremendous amount of legal liability; it gives terminated employees grounds for filing lawsuits.
As the longest-serving member of our local elected body, I have watched for more than six years as this sound advice has gone unheeded, and our city repeatedly has had to defend lawsuits from former employees who were tried and convicted in the court of public opinion by overzealous elected officials who sought the media spotlight as opposed to considering the best interests of the citizens they serve, since taxpayer dollars are used to defend these lawsuits.
Another consequence of these actions is that they feed and foster a culture of fear and intimidation that puts our city at a competitive disadvantage for recruiting employees. I constantly remind commissioners that we do not operate in a vacuum. Our meetings and our local media coverage are available to a worldwide audience online.
THIS SAME CULTURE of intimidation – in which employees live in fear of attracting the wrath of an individual commissioner, to then be publicly dragged through the mud while running the risk of damaging their personal reputations and their career options – is on display for the world to see.
Over time, a business that cannot attract and retain the most qualified employees will be outpaced by competitors. The same principle applies to local governments.
In these difficult economic times, economic development and business recruitment has become even more competitive. Having worked with our local economic development team for many years, Augusta has done well recruiting new businesses and helping businesses grow.
However, in this competitive environment for businesses looking to locate here vs. other cities, many factors affect the decision-making. With all things being equal, from cost of living to incentives packages, if a competing city has a more stable and less controversial governing body, the scales are tipped in its favor.
Although we’re doing well, we will never know what we’ve lost. The direct consequence of commissioners grandstanding, pushing personal agendas and courting controversy ultimately is not creating jobs and opportunity at the rate we’re capable of, while taking money out of citizens’ pockets and food off their tables.
To support a business-friendly environment, it is extremely important to support existing businesses that create jobs for, and invest in, our community.
ONE SUCH BUSINESS is Automatic Data Processing, a major employer that has 800 employees while continuing to grow right here in Augusta. Several years ago, ADP invested heavily in our institutions of higher learning by equally dividing a $600,000 grant among Paine College, Augusta Technical College and Augusta State University.
This Fortune 300 company recently was dragged through the mud, with its reputation impugned by individual commissioners during ongoing discussions for the potential for ADP to become further involved with handling our city’s human resources functions. It remains to be seen whether this will happen and whether it would be cost-effective for the city to pursue this option, but the way in which a major employer for, and investor in, our community was treated through the process cannot have any positive impact on our business recruitment efforts.
Over the past six years as mayor, I have shared with individuals and organizations that I consider myself extraordinarily blessed to have the overwhelming support of the vast majority of the city that I serve.
I also have shared that those individuals and families who are the foundation of my support generally are not the people who grouse and complain through websites, blogs and silly Facebook pages where adults behaving in the most childish manner possible actually invest hours out of each day in trafficking in rumor, innuendo and misinformation while seeing who can act the most absurd.
To change the tenor of the situation we now find ourselves in – and to keep these actions from having further damaging consequences for the city we love and are blessed to call home – our local elected officials need to hear an overwhelming, albeit respectful, message from citizens and businesses throughout Augusta that this type of behavior will no longer be tolerated.
I’ll continue to do my part and ask that you all do yours.
(The writer was first elected mayor of Augusta in 2005.)