BLYTHE BUSINESSMAN J.B. Powell took office as a commissioner in 1995 and, later that November, Ulmer Bridges was elected commissioner from our community's other south Augusta district. While looking out for their district concerns - and trying to promote Regency Mall as a governmental center since it is closer to their constituents than downtown - they nevertheless managed to agree with their west Augusta Commission counterparts on basic principles of governance.
They respected Administrator Randy Oliver and generally appreciated his management style and range of recommendations. They generally didn't engage in micromanagement. And the "southerners" and "westerners" stood up against waste and corruption.
Then Powell made two fateful moves: 1) He didn't run for re-election in order to spend more time with his family and business; 2) he then helped elect Andy Cheek as his replacement.
It hasn't taken long for Powell to become stricken with pangs of regret. The collapse of the south-west coalition that he helped nurture has been slow, but is now complete.
Cheek cast his lot with a new bloc. He has been forging a working majority with five black commissioners on the 10-member Commission. Its leaders are Lee Beard and "motormouth" Willie Mays. And micro-manager Marion Williams enthusiastically joined this bloc.
In recent weeks they installed their own pick as public works director against the recommendation of Administrator Randy Oliver. But, far more importantly, they later succeeded in forcing Oliver out.
One of the last straws for Oliver was when half of the Augusta Commission refused to comply with a reasonable request - that his contract stipulate that any complaints about employees be directed solely to him.
Oliver obviously knew it was time to bail out.
So while south and west Augustans erect a cemetery marker to their dead coalition, Augusta-Richmond County government moves into uncharted political waters.
In a telephone conversation with this columnist, Andy Cheek insists he's just an independent "reformer" - although he admits to "some micro-managing."
The commissioner defends the naming of Teresa Smith as the new public works chief, noting she is articulate and qualified. He bristles at suggestions he undermined Oliver by agreeing with his newly-forged commission majority to give Smith an unwarranted raise to $80,000 annually. But consider this: Smith supervises 200 workers and has relatively little experience; veteran Oliver supervises 2,637 people and is paid $99,000 annually.
When asked about startling reports that his ally, Commissioner Marion Williams, has verbally abused Oliver and other county employees, Cheek demurs. "Sometimes he doesn't have tact," he says.
Cheek vows he is not simply voting for a new black administrator - he wants "the best applicant regardless of color." And he calls for a nationwide job search for Oliver's successor.
To his credit, Cheek admitted (at least to me) that he erred in voting to allow two assistant fire chiefs to compete for the chief's position in the scandal-racked Fire Department. Carl Scott - an acolyte of ex-Chief Ronnie Few - doesn't meet the college education requirement and shouldn't have been voted in as interim chief by Cheek & Co.
A white commissioner, speaking on background, makes an incredible statement: "(Andy) Cheek doesn't care about us - he rarely talks to us."
Cheek tersely says that Commissioners Steve Shepard, Bill Kuhlke, Ulmer Bridges and Jerry Brigham all too often "tell me what to do - they don't listen."
And what of Mayor Bob Young?
Last December, at a Christmas gathering, the mayor speculated on any future departure by Oliver. He would help "fill the gap," I recall him saying.
I don't doubt that he'll try.
In turn, this revives questions for our city's legislative delegation, which will be in Atlanta in four months for a new General Assembly session. Should the mayor assume new powers, such as a line-item veto over commission decisions (with a two-thirds commission override)? Should the office be empowered so it is more like a CEO/chairman job?
Young's political career will rise, or fall, based on what happens next.
It is a law of nature and politics that, whenever there's a vacuum, it will soon be filled. The big question in Augusta: Who will fill the power vacuum created by Oliver's exit?
Phil Kent is senior editorial writer for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3327 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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