Originally created 02/04/01

Summit reveals core problem



The leadership summit called last Thursday in Atlanta by Sen. Charles Walker, D-Augusta, can be characterized as a success in several ways: The room overflowed with interested Augustans, most speakers kept their remarks relatively short and a couple of areas of focus emerged for people to direct positive energy toward.

Participants and observers were given the clear mission to begin an active lobby to bring a cancer research center to Augusta, and told that Augusta's position in the governor's triple-pronged cancer research initiative was not at all certain.

Augustans learned that other communities - Savannah being the latest - have begun active lobbying to attract the research money that rightfully belongs in Augusta with the Medical College of Georgia.

That was a concrete result of a meeting that could have wandered in the wilderness of economic, racial and city government problems.

But the summit itself was a living laboratory of what is wrong structurally with Augusta's government. There, at the head of the table was Sen. Walker, leading the effort. An emasculated Mayor Bob Young sat a couple of seats away to his left, and the other commissioners stood or sat nearby.

Walker was facilitating a discussion that should have been able to take place at the local level, under the leadership of a mayor. But because the office of mayor is toothless, Young simply can't run with the big dogs as a power broker. He controls no votes - not even his own - and thus can't acquire any power that would allow him to lead such a discussion. He's an affable figurehead with a bully pulpit, but no one is listening.

Thus, the power void had to be filled in order for the community to begin an open discussion about the recent findings of the special grand jury, which found plenty of fault with our city commissioners and the way our government is structured. Sen. Walker is the only politician with enough horsepower to bring people to the table.

The summit participants never did get around to discussing the need for a city charter - rules of order that would govern the actions of elected officials. The hour slipped away quickly as certain commissioners ran the clock out defending themselves and their actions, denying everything in the special grand jury's scathing presentment.

But Walker stated that the restructuring of government was not a dead issue, and that Augusta should wait for the city-appointed committee on governmental structure to complete its work and present its findings.

Among ideas being weighed is a proposed mandate that the Augusta Commission adhere to Roberts Rules of Order, which would discourage commissioners from leaving the room to avoid voting, or to abstain for no publicly acknowledged reason, a problem that has become apparent.

Using Roberts Rules of Order, commission votes would be based on the majority of the quorum present and voting. Those members who leave the room or abstain from voting would find themselves marginalized instead of empowered with de facto veto powers that they now have.

During the summit, members of the commission who have been specifically criticized for using that method complained loudly that now that there is a city government led by African-Americans, whites all of a sudden want to change the rules and adopt a charter.

They are being shortsighted. In fact, a call for a city charter was made long ago, even at the time of consolidation. Without one, what has happened has led to a black-white split in the entire city, where black constituents rush to defend their commissioners and whites defend theirs and continue to lose faith that the city can be governed in a mature fashion under the current district lines and with the current rules of order.

The three meeting topics - economics, race and politics - are all important. But economic growth and racial harmony will not be easy to achieve unless our government is functional. That is why community leaders cannot give up on their demands for a city charter, the foundation for a better Augusta.