Originally created 02/17/99

Office wins brief reprieve



A legal lapse stopped Augusta's legislators Tuesday from considering a bill to eliminate the city's Equal Opportunity Office, but they said the measure will be reintroduced.

Legislators will strike the portion of Georgia Senate Bill 167 that would eliminate the office because it was not advertised to the public, said state Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta. Augusta's senators will reintroduce the portion as a separate bill next week, he said.

The rest of the bill will remain intact, said House Speaker Pro Tem Jack Connell, D-Augusta. The bill mandates that Augusta hold a special election to fill the seats of city commissioners who leave office before their terms are up if the vacancy would exist for a year or more. Commissioners now vote to fill vacant seats.

Mr. Connell said he will sign the bill to eliminate the Equal Opportunity Office when it is introduced.

Mr. Walker and state Sen. Don Cheeks, D-Augusta, signed the first bill. They and four of the six Augusta delegation members must sign a bill for it to become law.

Mr. Walker said he sponsored the bill to do away with the office at the request of several city commissioners, who contend it is "not working out" and who plan to "re-direct that effort."

Lawmakers wrote the office into the consolidation law to ensure equal opportunity and fairness in city government after the city's merger with Richmond County government in 1996.

Now, the director of the office they created, Brenda Byrd-Pelaez, said she's not being given an equal opportunity to defend herself.

"I think that essentially, I've been treated unfairly that this has to be put in the paper that this office isn't working when no one has ever come to me to explain that the office isn't working and given me a chance to make sure that I could amend whatever wasn't working correctly," she said.

The director's duties include reviewing bids, investigating employee complaints and attending grievance hearings to make sure employees are treated fairly in suspensions or terminations.

Mayor Pro Tem Lee Beard and Commissioner Henry Brigham, who want to see the office abolished, said it is a good way to start trimming the fat out of government.

"The mayor talked about cutting down and cutting the fat out. It's just surprising to me when we start cutting the fat out because the city's efficiency study stated that the young lady was not being utilized in the proper way. So why should we pay $40,000 when we could cut that out?" Mr. Beard said.

His push to do away with the office has nothing to do with personality as some other officials have suggested, Mr. Beard said.

Commissioner Freddie Handy said he wasn't going to bite the hand that feeds him by opposing the bill.

The local legislative delegation sets the salaries of Augusta's elected officials.

Commissioner Ulmer Bridges said if the delegation gets rid of the city's Equal Opportunity Office, to be consistent it should do the same with the school board's equal opportunity office.

"If it's not needed on the city side, it's not needed on the school board side. And if there's objection to getting rid of both positions, then it tells me the problem is not the position but the person holding the position," Mr. Bridges said.

Mrs. Byrd-Pelaez is a very fair, colorblind person, he said.

"She does not look at race at all," he said. "I think that's important in that position. It's sad to say, in some cases, we have people who wish that were not the case."

Sylvia Cooper and Brandon Haddock can be reached at (706) 724-0851 or newsoom@augustachronicle.com.