Originally created 12/13/01

Race investigation denied



A discrimination investigation into Augusta's garbage contracts would be welcomed by several city officials.

Still, a Wednesday vote by the government panel that is supposed to resolve the city's racial strife will ignore - at least for another month - allegations that fraud charges filed against CSRA Waste last month were racially motivated.

In an unusually rancorous meeting of the Augusta Human Relations Commission, members considered and eventually voted down a motion to look into allegations that the city's primary garbage hauler was targeted for a criminal investigation - in part - because its president is black. The charges were made by several minority members of the Augusta Commission in published reports.

"This body has been challenged by the mayor and county commission to be the watchdog for the community on issues relating to racial divisiveness, and we would be remiss in our duties if we allow this issue to go unchallenged," said Peter Shirley, a human relations commissioner.

His motion to investigate failed 3-6 and was split down racial lines.

An investigation into allegations of racial bias would, however, be welcomed by the city administrator, the Richmond County Sheriff's Office and the Augusta commissioner who made the initial accusation that CSRA Waste was being singled out because its president, Kester Uzochukwu, is black.

Mr. Uzochukwu was arrested Nov. 19 and charged with theft of services. He has been accused of bilking the city out of landfill fees for mixing outside trash with the city's, then dumping it all for free.

Sheriff Ronnie Strength said he would have no problem with an investigation by the Human Relations Commission.

"Our responsibility is to the citizens of this community, and to uphold the laws of this state," Sheriff Strength said. "We don't see black and white, here. We see right and wrong."

The sheriff has said police used orange bags as "bait trash" to allow them to track where CSRA's garbage went, what it was mixed with and how dumping fees were charged.

"Anyone else you wouldn't arrest the company just because one employee did something," Commissioner Marion Williams said before Wednesday's meeting. "I have nothing to base my theory on except Kester - ever since he put in his bid - we were requesting more of him than anyone else."

Mr. Shirley said he believes it is divisive for Mr. Williams, a public figure, to make such statements without proof.

"That is a racially heated statement that we are commissioned to look into," Mr. Shirley said. "If it's a fact, we should back it up. If not, those commissioners should be put on the spot."

Human Relations Commission Chairman Kent Spruill said board members who didn't support Mr. Shirley's motion were concerned because he wanted not only to investigate the charges against CSRA Waste but also to condemn Augusta commissioners for making "racially charged" statements.

Condemnation is divisive Mr. Spruill said, but a motion that deals only with an investigation could be approved at next month's Human Relations Commission meeting.

"It seems like the more we talk, the worse it gets," said Michael Elliott, a white board member.

The racial climate in the city isn't making such discussions any easier, including a failed vote to hire a fire chief earlier this month that also split along racial lines, said Mr. Spruill.

"We could say it's the fire chief, but there's been votes like that in the past," he said. "I think we can talk about it if people talk sensibly. If they understand what each one of them brings to the table, the would have a better understanding of why they vote the way they do."

At last month's Human Relations Commission meeting, a vote on a similar issue - a resolution to condemn racially charged statements by certain commissioners - was taken by secret ballot, which, according to Clerk of Commission Lena Bonner, is illegal under open meetings laws.

"I'm hoping this commission will continue to try to work on this matter," said Dave Mack, a black board member. "Every time you have a race issue, there is no progress made to resolve it.

"The problem with race is that everyone wants to work it out according to their own formula."

Mr. Shirley said he planned to ask his commissioner - District 3 representative Steve Shepard - to disband the Human Relations Commission because it "is not conducting its business as chartered and has shown a tendency to overlook racial injustices when committed by minorities."

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215.