Originally created 01/26/99

Letter leads to increase



Augusta commissioners circumvented Georgia's open meetings law this month by authorizing raises for selected court employees.

City Attorney Jim Wall circulated a letter Jan. 14 asking commissioners to sign their approval for salary supplement increases for Superior Court judges' secretaries.

Eight of the 10 commissioners signed the letter authorizing a $1,196 supplement increase for eight secretaries, which increased the annual pay of two of them to more than $40,000.

The raises needed a commission vote of approval because they were outside the salary ranges for the positions within the county's pay system.

City Administrator Randy Oliver recommended against the secretaries' raises during last month's city budget hearings for that reason.

Only Commissioners Freddie Handy and Henry Brigham did not sign the letter that made the raises take effect Jan. 1.

Mayor Bob Young said Monday he had not heard about the letter or raises until he was contacted about the matter Monday night after meetings in Atlanta. But he said he saw no reason the raises couldn't have been handled publicly.

"I don't see what the urgency is to this. Why this couldn't wait for a meeting and be done in the open and public." Mr. Young said.

Commissioner J.B. Powell, also contacted Monday in Atlanta, said he hadn't seen such a letter.

"I don't remember signing it. I possibly could have, but I don't remember that," Mr. Powell said. "I'll have to see what you're talking about. Hell, I sign so much stuff. ..."

Here's who got the raises and what they're making now: Cynthia Sapp, $40,913; Bonnie Sorrels, $40,913; Gracey Leverett, $39,281; Debra Henry, $32,153; Kim Hill, $32,153; Susan Stewart, $32,153; Shelley Arbogast, $32,153; and Barbara Atkins, $27,984.

Mr. Wall contends a secret commission vote of six signatures is legal if commissioners later ratify the vote in public -- even though the action approved by signature has already been put into effect.

The latest letter vote by commissioners should have been ratified at last week's Augusta Commission meeting, but it was not, Commissioner Jerry Brigham said.

When asked why commissioners approved the raises, Jerry Brigham said they were "just trying to keep the judges happy" because they have the power to write orders, such as ordering the city to "empty the jails.

"That's what it boils down to," Jerry Brigham said.

The state pays the bulk of judicial officials' salaries, and the city supplements that amount.

The city paid $90,000 in 1997 for a salary classification study that set salary ranges based on position. That study, when implemented, was supposed to do away with pay inequities and ensure employees would be treated the same.

But many department heads and employees want more money, and some of them get it, usually with the justification that they are special cases.

For example, commissioners gave their clerk, Lena Bonner, a $6,143 raise this month, pushing her pay to $50,830. Mrs. Bonner was exempt from the salary study because she reports directly to the commission, officials said.

At the same time, commissioners raised Richmond County elections Director Lynn Bailey's pay by $7,861 to $50,830 because the county elections board recommended she receive an increase, said Commissioner Bill Kuhlke.

And Augusta commissioners were forced to approve a $12,500 raise for Bush Field Airport Manager Al McDill because the aviation commission, which has the authority to set the manager's salary, had already voted to raise his pay to $85,000 a year.

Augusta commissioners have been discussing a raise request from Fire Chief Ronnie Few in closed-door meetings, but so far have not approved one publicly.

For most employees, however, the raise gatekeeper is Mr. Oliver, who can deny requests or send them on to commissioners.

For example, Mr. Oliver denied Emergency Management Director Pam Tucker's raise request. Mrs. Tucker, who said she is the city's lowest-paid department head at $41,300 a year, has applied for a similar job with Columbia County.

Sylvia Cooper can be reached at (706) 823-3228 or sylviaco@augustachronicle.com.