While reading what is apparently the Augusta-Richmond County Special Grand Jury's final presentment Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Albert M. Pickett paused to exclaim "Hallelujah!" at the report's recommendation that a simple majority rule city commission meetings when a quorum is present.
"To any outside observer, it looks like a fifth-grade operation," declared the judge, referring to commissioners who get up and leave meetings prior to votes that appear close, in order to prevent a quorum or a tie-breaking vote by the mayor.
We think the judge's remark was unfair and out of line.
And we extend our apologies to the area's fifth-graders.
Truth is, no self-respecting fifth grader would willingly be associated with the kind of dysfunction rife in Augusta government.
That's why the special grand jury was formed in 1999 - at the behest of temporary grand juries that just didn't have the time to cover all the ground they wanted to.
A continuing grand jury could get to the root of the problems and suggest appropriate reforms. We think they did just that. The special grand jury is not an elitist, anti-commission group as its critics would have you believe. It is composed of a diverse cross-section of Augustans from different economic stratas, age groups and ethnic backgrounds - mirroring the city's population.
Except that these residents from every walk of life were willing to give up countless hours of their time to interview hundreds of witnesses and examine thousands of documents, and to make some common-sense recommendations to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of delivering local government services.
But before urging a cure for what ails the government, they first had to diagnose the illness. This is where they stepped on some toes, infuriating some of the commissioners, especially the blacks, who felt - particularly in regard to the 124-page presentment on mismanagement of the fire department during the tenure of Chief Ronnie Few - they were picked-on by a "racist" grand jury. The charge is ridiculous on its face. Many of the grand jurors are black.
Moreover, as Tuesday's presentment pointed out, "when Ronnie Few and a commissioner attacked the head of the EEO (Equal Employment Office), they attacked an African-American. When the interim chief demeaned his training chief, he attacked an African-American. When Few lied to the Personnel Board, half were African-Americans. ... Many of the firefighters affected by shady promotions and skewed raises are African-Americans."
What angers commissioners is that they were caught doing wrong - practicing cronyism instead of good government. And the standard response when that happens is to charge politics or play the race card.
But neither race nor politics motivated this special grand jury. "Competency alone was all that mattered," the jurors said in their final report. And they found very little of it in their lengthy investigations. Even worse, they found virtually no inclination by the commission to make changes to become competent.
Most commissioners like the status quo and want to keep it that way. What they don't like is criticism - recall how upset they got with the business community for lobbying for structural reform in the legislature this year? They're also mad at the grand jury for the same reason and at anyone else who tries to hold their incompetence to account.
In light of their suggested reforms going nowhere, special grand jurors in their final presentment suggest empaneling a special grand jury every five to seven years until a new and constructive city charter is put in place.
That's a good idea. As long as the city commission can operate under the current inefficient charter, some independent entity needs to keep reminding the public how much better off the city could be under good governance.
It's up to us to listen now - and act.
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