The Georgia Senate has passed local legislation to abolish the Equal Opportunity Office from Augusta's consolidated city-county government.
The bill, by state Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta, also calls for vacancies on the Augusta Commission to be filled in a special election when the unexpired term on a vacant seat exceeds a year.
The bill is now goes to the state House for signatures of support. Four of Augusta's six House members must sign it.
Mr. Walker said Monday he sponsored the bill to do away with the Equal Opportunity Office at the request of several Augusta commissioners, including Mayor Pro Tem Lee Beard, who contended the office is "not working out."
"People are using it as an excuse for not doing things, and so some county commissioners asked the delegation to re-do it," Mr. Walker said.
"So far, they haven't done nothing. It's just sitting there. So there's no need in imposing it on the county when there ain't nothing happening with it."
Mr. Beard and Commissioners Henry Brigham and Jerry Brigham believe the office isn't needed "because the county's doing pretty good without it," Mr. Walker said.
Commissioners want to transfer the work of the Equal Opportunity Office to the city's purchasing department and move its director, Brenda Byrd-Pelaez, to the Augusta Human Relations Commission office, Mr. Walker said.
Mrs. Byrd-Pelaez ran afoul of Mr. Beard last year when he criticized her job performance. In response, she wrote commissioners a letter disputing his accusations and the letter became public.
She said she was criticized for investigating a number of employee complaints, which she described as part of her job. Mrs. Byrd-Pelaez was forced to move from her eighth-floor office in the administrator's suite to smaller quarters on the Municipal Building's second floor.
She said Monday she was shocked by the state legislation and did not know what she had done to be targeted in such a fashion.
Mr. Beard would not comment on the bill Monday.
Several Augusta commissioners and city officials spoke highly of Mrs. Byrd-Pelaez's performance and predicted she will be offered another government job.
Mayor Bob Young is one of them.
"I think it's not an issue in government as much as it's an issue involving personalities," he said. "Rather than abolish that office, I'd like to see it strengthened."
State Sen. Don Cheeks, D-Augusta, said he signed the bill Friday to do away with the Equal Opportunity Office because he opposed creating such a department when lawmakers wrote the consolidation bill years ago. Richmond County and Augusta city governments consolidated in 1996.
"This amendment does what I tried to do then," Mr. Cheeks said. "... Now an opportunity came to eliminate (the office). I haven't changed my position."
Mrs. Byrd-Pelaez has done a "super job," Jerry Brigham said.
"I think the problem is she's been overly fair," Mr. Brigham said. "She's been a very loyal and very fair employee."
Sylvia Cooper can be reached at (706) 823-3228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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