Originally created 02/22/98

City officials mixed on pre-vote polling



When Augusta Fire Chief Ronnie Few needed money to put on the department's badge-pinning ceremony, Mayor Larry Sconyers directed the clerk to poll commissioners to see whether they would approve spending $3,000 of taxpayers' money on the event.

That was Feb. 4, the day after a commission meeting in which the expenditure from the commissioners' fund could have been voted on in public. The next day, Feb. 5, the clerk sent out a letter to commissioners asking them to sign their approval, which would be voted on almost two weeks later.

Mayor Pro Tem Lee Beard, Commissioners Henry Brigham, Freddie Handy, Bill Kuhlke, Willie Mays and J.B. Powell signed the letter, and Mr. Few had his $5,000 ceremony a week later.

In addition to the $3,000, Mr. Few received $1,900 in donations: $1,500 from a local bank; $200 from Firefighters United; $100 from Sidney's Department Store; and $100 from Command Uniforms, two vendors that routinely bid on firefighter uniforms, according to city records.

That's how commissioners often do the public's business.

City Attorney Jim Wall and most commissioners defend the practice. They say voting by pen is not illegal or unethical because a public vote is taken later. However, spokesmen for government-watchdog groups say such voting precludes input from the public.

"In my opinion, it certainly contravenes the Open Meetings Act," said Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. "The public's business needs to take place in a public meeting where a quorum is present.

"The letter method seems to be an attempt to get around the public meeting requirement."

The foundation is a nonprofit agency whose mission is to promote open government in Georgia through education and advocacy, Ms. Manheimer said.

Officials of four other Georgia governments said their commissioners are never polled beforehand on any action to come before them.

"We've never done anything like that," said Mae Walters, assistant to consolidated Athens-Clarke County Mayor Gwen O'Looney. "Nothing is ever put into effect until it has gone to a public meeting and been voted on. And we've never done a phone poll."

In Chatham County, all votes are taken in open session, said commission Chairman Billy Hair.

"Even in executive session, we discuss, but we don't take any votes," he said. "We take all votes in open meetings. We don't do any polling in advance."

Consolidated Columbus-Muscogee County Deputy Clerk Sandra Davis said all council votes are taken publicly.

"If the city manager needs direction on something, he may call them in before the meeting and brief them, but they've never taken a vote by letter," she said.

Columbia County Commission Chairman Jim Whitehead said, "If it's something that important, we call a special called meeting."

Mr. Whitehead said he almost never knows how anyone will vote until the vote is taken.

"I don't want them to ask me, and I don't ask them how they will vote," he said.

If Mr. Whitehead needs more information, he may call a more experienced commissioner to hear his or her views in order to help him make up his mind, he said.

"I don't want to criticize anybody, but the way I feel is I don't like to make deals, and I don't like to play games," he said.

Even some Augusta commissioners who sign the letters acknowledge it's a bad practice.

"If I agree with it, I sign, but I have concerns about it," said Commissioner Ulmer Bridges. "It's not a good practice. It might be a necessary practice because there may be a time restraint when you have to do something that way.

"Other than that, I think it's a bad practice. What if they sign the letter, and they don't get out on the commission floor and vote for it? That's what's happened before. That's the problem. That's the River Race Augusta problem."

Mayor Larry Sconyers authorized giving River Race Augusta $50,000 at the end of 1996, he said, on the verbal assent of six commissioners. Only one commissioner later acknowledged approving the gift. River Race organizers took the taxpayers' money and canceled the event.

Mr. Bridges said he wouldn't sign the letter authorizing the money for the firefighters' ceremony because he thought Mr. Few ought to be able to find $3,000 in his $13 million departmental budget, he said.

But Mr. Bridges was one of the leaders of a move to buy Regency Mall two years ago and turn it into a government-office complex. That effort, which involved an illegal, secret meeting of commissioners and school-board officials, also triggered a letter circulated to obtain six signatures to authorize Mr. Sconyers to pursue the purchase.

Commissioner Stephen Shepard, one of the four who did not sign the letter requesting the $3,000, said he couldn't understand why the request wasn't brought up during the public meeting.

"Generally, I don't like to sign those kinds of letters," he said. "A better way would be to bring it before the committee. Sometimes you have emergencies I understand, but I don't know this is that emergency."

Commissioner Jerry Brigham admitted he waffles on voting by pen.

"Sometimes it's good, and sometimes it's bad," he said. "If I'm in favor of it, and it's necessary due to the time restraints, I will do it. If I'm opposed, and I don't believe it's necessary due to the time restraints, I won't do it."

Commissioner Moses Todd, a past critic of voting by letter, seems to have mellowed on the subject.

At the meeting two days before the commission was polled about the $3,000, Mr. Todd made a motion that called for six signatures or a vote by the board for any money to be drawn from the account. It passed unanimously.

But in 1996, when commissioners circulated a letter seeking six votes to rescind the appointment of Butch Murdock as acting fire chief and appoint Dennis Atkins instead, Mr. Todd blasted them.

He said it was "strictly illegal" to circulate the letter, keep it concealed from certain commissioners and execute it before ratification by the full board.

Mr. Todd was one of the commissioners not asked to sign that letter.

When reminded of those comments last week, he said he meant the illegal part was concealing the letter from some commissioners, not the letter itself or voting by signature.

He said voting by pen may not be the best way to do the public's business, "but it's better than government by no action or River Race Augusta."

Mr. Brigham called the vote to rescind Mr. Murdock's appointment a "political rescinding."

"That wasn't an emergency," he said. "We took a vote in commission, and it come out the way some people didn't like, so they got some people to change their mind and wrote a letter on it. We hired Butch Murdock and took it back and put Dennis Atkins in charge less than 24 hours later."

And many commissioners get upset when the letters and other government memos - most of which are public information since they are generated by employees paid with public money using equipment and supplies also paid for with public money - become public.

When a recent memo from the city's equal-opportunity officer Brenda Byrd-Pelaez to Mayor Pro Tem Lee Beard rebutting Mr. Beard's criticism of her job performance became public, commissioners tried to find out who had "leaked" the memo to the newspaper.

Voting by pen

Here are examples of Augusta commissioners voting by pen:

  • Settlement of the city's effort to recoup moving expenses from its short-term Public Works Director Jonathan Adams.
  • Mr. Adams accepted the job in Augusta and after a few weeks, resigned. The city had paid him $10,000 for moving expenses, but deducted $4,833 for taxes because he had not submitted any receipts.

    The city was holding Mr. Adams' last check to use to pay the taxes, but he came up with $5,167 worth of receipts and other documentation, so city officials were satisfied and released Mr. Adams' final check.

    City Attorney Jim Wall said the settlement was handledby a Dec. 22 letter because there were no more scheduled meetings before January. However, commissioners met Dec. 30 to adopt a budget and easily could have approved the settlement then.

  • Authorization to distribute an $80,000 pass-through grant from the state to 15 entities
  • Sen. Charles Walker said were close to his heart. The commission was to meet five days later and vote on matter, but the agencies apparently had been promised the money by month's end, according to the letter Mr. Wall circulated.

    Administrator Randy Oliver had refused to authorize the payments without commission approval.

  • Approval of a request by Mr. Wall for a $125,000 increase in his 1997 budget.
  • Approval of request the Augusta legislative delegation not pass any bill affecting the consolidated government without a prior resolution from the commission.
  • Approval of two separate requests to authorize water-damage claims totaling $57,912 to four people whose belongings were ruined when a defective fire plug flooded a storage warehouse.
  • Appointment of AllisonMay as director of Main Street
  • Augusta.

    Mr. Wall circulated a letter in September asking commissioners to vote by signature on six issues, five of which had been on the agenda for a meeting that didn't take place because not enough commissioners showed up for official action. They were:

  • Acceptance of a $1.1 million grant for Bush Field airport. The deadline for accepting the grant was five days away.
  • Approval of a $407,367 paving contract for Bush Field.
  • Approval of a $1.14 million contract for widening Bush Field entrance, road and parking lot work.
  • Approval of a license agreement between the city and TDI Inc. for use of a water tower.
  • Authorization to file a grant application with the state and federal Department of Transportation.
  • Approval of the Chamber of Commerce's request to donate $1,000 for the Freedom Park at Fort Gordon.