Originally created 05/30/99

Personnel key to reversing civic center vote



Reggie Williams has said it himself: He is Leisure Management International.

The way he sees it, if the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority supports LMI, the private firm that runs Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center and Bell Auditorium, it supports him as the complex's general manager.

Or vice versa.

"I think it's a package deal," authority member Belle Clark said.

If it were not for Mrs. Clark and three other authority members -- David Bell, Marlene Watkins and Jack Usry -- changing their votes last week and reversing an earlier decision, LMI and Mr. Williams would be out the door.

Some board members said they believed a decision needed to be made quickly when they originally voted 9-0 on April 27 not to extend LMI's contract, which expires Jan. 31. In reality, they have until July 1 to notify LMI about a contract extension, or an extension will kick in automatically.

Other members -- Vice Chairman Joe Scott, Quincy Murphy and Calvin Holland -- who were not present for that vote, said the decision to let LMI go was made too hastily and they weren't notified it was going to be made at that time.

LMI, which had come under fire for not delivering the job promised, picked Mr. Williams on March 23 to succeed former General Manager Pat Cumiskey, who was fired by LMI on March 1.

Mr. Williams, an experienced arena manager with high-ranking positions at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and the Omni under his belt, was received well by the authority.

But by late April, support for LMI appeared to be waning as the authority in effect voted to oust the Houston-based firm. Complaints by some board members ranged from LMI's turning in late its first audit in 11 months to charging the authority $10,000 in hidden human resources fees

But last Tuesday, the authority voted 7-4 to reopen negotiations with LMI.

Ms. Watkins refused to comment about her change of heart. "I think enough has already been said," she said.

Mrs. Clark said she made a mistake by voting to oust LMI and wanted to correct it. "I did it because I think it was the right thing to do," she said.

Authority member Austin Rhodes said Mr. Bell was one of LMI's most vocal critics in a closed-door meeting April 27.

He said Mr. Usry was equally critical.

Mr. Bell said other authority members, whom he would not identify, told him a decision on LMI's future needed to be made quickly. Mr. Usry said authority attorney Sam Nicholson led him to believe the same thing. When they found out there was more time, they reconsidered.

Mr. Nicholson was out of town and unavailable for comment.

Authority member Bonnie Ruben, who voted against LMI both times, accused the firm of "playing a race card" in selecting Mr. Williams, who is black.

She said LMI officials knew Mr. Williams would appeal to the board's black members -- Mr. Scott, Mr. Holland, Mr. Murphy, Mrs. Watkins and Mrs. Clark -- and the black community, making it hard to let LMI go.

But members who voted in favor of LMI deny race was a motivation.

Mr. Scott, who wrote a letter May 10 informing Chairman Bill Maddox a move was under way to rescind the April 27 vote, said LMI has straightened out many of the problems which the board cited.

Mrs. Clark and Mr. Bell said retaining Mr. Williams was a primary motivation in reversing their votes.

"I think he's a big factor. You bet your bottom dollar it made a difference," Mr. Bell said. "LMI was going down the tubes. They had lost the confidence of the board."

According to LMI's $85,000-a-year contract, the authority cannot hire, employ or solicit for hire the general manager for 24 months after the contract's expiration.

Mr. Usry said keeping Mr. Williams was important, but he also said he was concerned about other civic center staff who are considered LMI employees.

The contract stipulates that the civic center "senior personnel," two of whom were absorbed by LMI, cannot be rehired for 24 months as well. Those senior personnel, according to Mr. Williams, are new Finance Director Joe Bowles and two longtime civic center employees, Assistant General Manager Linda Roberts and Operations and Engineering Director George Croft.

"We need to look out for people," Mr. Usry said. "That was one of my major concerns."

Mr. Scott, who is charged along with Mr. Maddox and Mr. Nicholson to negotiate with LMI officials, said they likely will try to eliminate the clause that prevents the authority from rehiring key civic center personnel.

"Those are some of the things we're going to discuss," he said. "But I don't know if they are going to compromise."

Despite last week's vote, LMI is not guaranteed a contract extension, but if voting blocs stay the same, they appear to be sitting pretty.

Mr. Williams, who was reluctant to plan next fiscal year's budget when it was unclear who would implement the spending plan, is taking the approach that he and LMI will be in charge.

"We're going to proceed as if we're going to be here," he said. "We'll know for sure in four weeks."

Kent Kimes covers arts and entertainment for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3626 or feature@augustachronicle.com.