Originally created 06/08/01

New panel will focus on city's race relations



Race relations in Augusta is in such a poor state that the city government needs a formal committee to address the issue.

That is the consensus of the city's charter committee, which on Thursday endorsed the creation of a commission committee to look at diversity and equity in city government.

The committee's size and chairmanship have not been determined but its creation was unanimously approved. The charter group agreed that if race relations were addressed regularly and publicly by the Augusta Commission, the city would be able to move beyond the racism and prejudice the group says keeps economic development at a standstill and new industry away.

The new committee would be able to consider anything in government that could be affected by racial strife or prejudice, including hiring and firing practices, zoning issues, business licensing, contracting and funding for city departments.

"Race relations is important enough that it should be recognized by having a standing committee, and there ought to be county commissioners on that committee who have responsibility for making things work better," said attorney and committee member David Hudson.

The charter group stopped short of setting specific goals for the committee, saying it didn't want to micro-manage.

"What people think is important," said Quincy Robertson, a retired educator and charter committee member. "We are going to have to handle the race problems. We should have different teams work on these problems and let it be public."

The charter committee worked with two members of the Richmond County Human Relations Commission on Thursday to hammer out its race relations recommendation. The issue is one of the last to be considered for the charter draft by the committee, which also has made suggested changes to mayoral power, administrative duties and Augusta commissioners' responsibilities.

Allegations of discriminatory hiring practices by the city and complaints about police officers using excessive force against minorities are among the factors that contribute to racism and classism within the community, members of the human relations commission told the charter group.

The human relations panel, which handles discrimination issues within city government, has been drafting a plan to request more financial and moral support from elected officials. A race relations committee composed of commissioners would aid in that effort, board members said.

"We're there to put out fires, but we shouldn't be," said Frank Thomas, the chairman of the Human Relations Commission. "We should be there to build bridges and promote human relations."

Charter committee members and human relations commissioners also considered annually rotating the committee's chairmanship between commissioners of different races.

The charter committee is scheduled to present a draft charter to Augusta Commission in July. That draft must be approved by commissioners and members of the state legislative delegation before it is adopted as law.

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.