Originally created 03/11/01

'Chronicle' seeks views on grand jury report



The blame for inept city government has been laid squarely at the feet of voters.

This year, Richmond County residents will get a chance to do something about it.

Five of the 10 Augusta Commission seats will be up for re-election Nov. 6., giving voters a chance to change the face of city government, or as a special grand jury strongly stated, head off the city's "path to destruction."

"If we do not become involved, if we do not vote ... then we will end up with a government no better than we deserve," the grand jury stated in an interim presentment Jan. 12.

Which is why The Augusta Chronicle is asking readers to weigh in on issues the grand jury says must be addressed to "avoid certain disaster."

In the weeks that have followed the report's publication, several of the problems highlighted in the presentment have been hotly debated, including grand jurors' criticism of mayoral power, race relations in the government workplace, divisiveness among government officials and the commission's practice of abstaining from voting.

Research shows that some of the accusations are supported by voting records and on-the-record statements. Other criticisms were more anecdotal, such as several accusations of discrimination that appear to be based on testimony instead of official complaints.

"I think the special grand jury report summarized what everybody was feeling," said Dave Barbee, chairman of the Richmond County Republican Party.

"A change is in order," Mr. Barbee said. "But it has to be the people that's willing to do so."

The Augusta Chronicle wants to hear from you. You can vote yes or no by calling our Infoline and entering the extension accompanying the question. Votes will be tallied through midnight Wednesday.

If you would like to comment on any of the issues, call 442-4444 or (803) 442-4444 and enter code 6010 to leave a voice mail message. If you would like to be contacted by a reporter, please leave your name and telephone number.

Mayoral powers

"Because the whole county elects the mayor, he is not bound by particular geographical loyalties. He is the voice of the whole county." - Special grand jury interim presentment.

All local government legislation is created through votes. The size of local governing bodies and the rules they follow vary from city to city and county to county throughout the state.

Some Georgia governments, such as Augusta-Richmond County, require a minimum of six votes for a motion to pass. Even if a majority exists, a motion fails without the six votes. For example, a vote of 5-0 in favor would fail.

Some cities give their mayor veto power, which can be overruled with a two-thirds majority vote by the commission. The grand jury in its presentment said a mayor with veto power would "foster a better government process" and "bring more stability by setting up a check and balance system."

1. Do you think Augusta's mayor should have veto power?

To respond, call Infoline at 442-4444 or (803) 442-4444 outside the local calling area. Enter code 6003 and press 1 to vote yes or 2 to vote no.

Race relations

"In Augusta ... politicians are allowed to use race in a self-serving manner." - Special grand jury interim presentment

The special grand jury cited several instances in which racial double standards were used to "further (commissioners') personal agendas."

Grand jurors accused some minority commissioners of harassing minority department heads for failing to adhere to their "race-based agendas," and reported that a key Finance Department employee resigned "after being targeted with racial allegations."

The grand jury's findings appear to be based on anecdotal evidence gleaned during closed-door testimony - not registered complaints. Of the 13 complaints lodged with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year concerning Richmond County government, only four were race related, and none came from the Finance Department. Two of the complaints came out of the Human Resources Department, one came from the Utilities Department, and one came from recreation.

2. Do you think race is used to further the personal agendas of Augusta commissioners and to harass city employees?

To respond, call Infoline at 442-4444 or (803) 442-4444 outside the local calling area. Enter code 6004 and press 1 to vote yes or 2 to vote no.

Commission divisiveness

"It ain't black or white no more. It's what's right, and I intend to stand for that. I was grateful to God for placing me with Andy Cheek. People have said, even commissioners have said, Andy Cheek was the sixth black commissioner because he votes on the right issues. Not black issues, but right issues. And it's time out for that."

- Commissioner Marion Williams, on the criticism he and Commissioner Andy Cheek have received for contributing to votes that have been pushed through by a margin of 6-4.

"Six votes rules. I probably won't ever be on the majority side again."

- Commissioner Jerry Brigham, at a Sept. 25 commission meeting after a 6-4 vote approved a higher salary for the city's new public works director.

Although the special grand jury did not specifically address the issue, a vote that is split 6-4 on the commission has been perceived as reflecting a racial divide among commissioners.

When votes are divided 6-4, typically four of the five white commissioners - Steve Shepard, Bill Kuhlke, Mr. Brigham and Ulmer Bridges - vote on one side. The five minority commissioners, Lee Beard, Henry Brigham, Richard Colclough, Willie Mays and Mr. Williams vote on the other side.Mr. Cheek, who is white, casts the sixth vote.

Voting records show that split votes occurred less often than unanimous votes during 2000, but the issues that have divided commissioners typically are among the most controversial.

While votes to adjourn a meeting, approve a resolution or to authorize the mayor to sign a "closed meeting affidavit" rarely draw opposition, commissioners have divided their votes 6-4 over controversies such as creating an in-house legal department, awarding a $50 Christmas bonus to local government employees during a tight budget time, and adopting a provision to prohibit some employees from driving city vehicles to their homes. There also have been 6-4 splits over several well-publicized zoning and business license issues..

During the 24 regularly-scheduled meetings in 2000:

10 meetings, 40 percent, did not have any split votes, and at least one commissioner was absent from four meetings, making a split vote impossible.

Excluding those four meetings in which a split vote was impossible because of absences, there were:

193 motions that garnered a 10-0 vote

22 motions that were split 6-4, passing or failing by the narrowest margin

18 motions of the 22 that were split 6-4 along racial lines. Commissioner Andy Cheek voted with the five minority commissioners

3. Does a 6-4 split mostly along racial lines suggest racial politics?

To respond, call Infoline at 442-4444, or (803) 442-4444 outside the local calling area. Enter code 6005 and press 1 to vote yes or 2 to vote no.

Voter Turnout

"We advise the voters to look carefully at those whom they elect; they are entrusted to shape the future of our city. In the end, the responsibility is our own. If we do not become involved, if we do not vote, if we do not offer ourselves as leaders, then we will end up with a government no better than we deserve." - Special grand jury interim presentment

Voter turnout has been historically low in Richmond County during local elections. There have been only two commission races since the county and city governments combined in 1995. In 1997, voter turnout for the commission election was 18.5 percent. In 1999, only 16 percent of voters cast ballots.

Board of Elections officials predict turnout might be better this year because a new countywide office will share the ballot - the office of Civil Court Marshal.

Five Augusta Commission posts will be up for election, and the five commissioners in the jobs now all served in political offices before the city and county consolidated.

They are:

District 1 Commissioner Lee Beard

He served on the former city council from 1994 to 1995 and has been an Augusta commissioner since 1996.

Total experience: Six years

District 3 Commissioner Steve Shepard

Heserved on the former city council from 1986 to 1988 and has been an Augusta commissioner since 1998.

Total experience: Six years

District 5 Commissioner Henry Brigham

He served on the former county commission from 1985 to 1995 and has been an Augusta commissioner since 1996.

Total experience: 15 years

District 7 Commissioner Jerry Brigham

He served on the former county commission in 1995 and has been an Augusta commissioner since 1996.

Total experience: Six years

Super District 9 Commissioner Willie Mays

He served on the former city council from 1980 to 1987 and on the former county commission from 1990 to 1995. He has been an Augusta commissioner since 1996.

Total experience: 17 years

4. (a) Do you plan on voting in the November 2001 Augusta Commission election?

To respond, call Infoline at 442-4444, or (803) 442-4444 outside the local calling area. Enter code 6006 and press 1 to vote yes or 2 to vote no.

(b) Do you plan to vote for any of the incumbent commissioners?

To respond, call Infoline at 442-4444, or (803) 442-4444 outside the local calling area. Enter code 6007 and press 1 to vote yes or 2 to vote no.

Quorum and Abstentions

"Currently, abstentions are to obstruct. These are premeditated acts, which allow personal agendas to impede the overall flow of government." - Special grand jury interim presentment

Augusta commissioners were accused by the special grand jury of using abstentions against their intended purpose. Abstentions, the grand jury argued, should be used only in instances of conflict of interest or when there is the appearance of impropriety.

In 2000, there were 24 regularly scheduled commission sessions. During those sessions, commissioners abstained 137 times on 101 separate motions. There were only a handful of times when commissioners cited a conflict of interest as the reason for abstaining.

The grand jury said that when a commissioner abstains or leaves the room during a vote it "usually occurs to avoid ... giving the mayor the tie-breaking vote." Voting records show abstentions might have prevented Mayor Bob Young from voting less than 22 times on items that ultimately failed because of lack of support. The mayor voted five times in 2000 to break a 5-5 tie on the commission.

About two-thirds of the time, abstentions did not have any effect on the outcome of the motion, permitting it to pass. One-third of the time, a vote that included an abstention failed.

Commissioners leaving the room before a vote was taken, which appeared to happen most often near the end of a meeting, had even less effect on the outcome of legislation. Of the 47 motions during which commissioners left the room - 44 passed and three failed.

5. (a) Do you think commissioners should only be able to abstain in the case of a conflict of interest?

To respond, call Infoline at 442-4444, or (803) 442-4444 outside the local calling area. Enter code 6008 and press 1 to vote yes or 2 to vote no.

(b) Do you think a simple majority should rule to discourage commissioners from leaving the room during voting?

To respond, call Infoline at 442-4444, or (803) 442-4444 outside the local calling area. Enter code 6009 and press 1 to vote yes or 2 to vote no.