Originally created 04/27/01

Race arises in charter talks



After months of conversation concerning the possible contents of a city charter, members of a citizens charter committee said they have overlooked how to help the city overcome its biggest obstacle: race relations.

But determining how to address race in a city charter presented the panel with a challenge unlike any yet faced by the 11-member group charged with drafting a document to replace a consolidation bill that currently governs the city. The charter will have to be approved by the Augusta Commission and the state legislative delegation to be adopted.

"When something is integrated, it makes a more perfect whole, and that ought to be the goal," said Mallory Millender, a Paine College professor and charter committee member. "We ought to be committed to coming up with some kind of impactful recommendation."

Committee members discussed the possibility of requiring commissioners to take an annual race relations retreat.

"If this community has a race relations problem, then part of the city and the commission's responsibility is to address that in a way that improves race relations," said Bill Thompson, city president of SunTrust Bank and chairman of the charter committee.

Ultimately, the panel decided to spend the next two weeks looking at ways other cities have tackled race relations through changes in government structure.

The citizens committee, appointed by the mayor and commission, has used a special grand jury interim presentment criticizing local government structure to guide its study into drafting a city charter.

The grand jury presentment made specific recommendations on what a city charter should include, but the charter committee has seemingly dismissed several of those recommendations, such as placing limits on commission abstentions and giving the mayor veto power.

But other grand jury recommendations have been well received and likely will be modified and included in the committee's proposed charter. Those recommendations include requiring commissioners to review the city's ethics ordinance once every two years, levying consequences against officials for ethics violations and appointing a citizens committee to review the city charter once every four years.

And charter committee members said even though a large part of the grand jury report was devoted to the issue of race relations in Augusta - with the blame for racial discord placed at the feet of Augusta commissioners - they have not incorporated any possible remedies to that discord in their recommendations.

How can we "do something bold that sets us apart from other cities?" asked committee member and local attorney David Hudson. "Atlanta has the reputation they're too busy to hate. Wouldn't it be nice if Augusta had the reputation among midsize cities that we don't let race hold us back?"

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.