Originally created 02/04/03

Protest law will stay put



In a repeat action of last month's Augusta Commission meeting, elected officials failed to get the votes needed to amend the city's protest laws - dividing down racial lines over whether to strengthen a public demonstration ordinance that could be challenged during this year's Masters Tournament.

Six votes are needed for a motion to pass, and city leaders have consistently deadlocked on proposed ordinance amendments that would, in part, require protesters to apply for a picketing permit 20 days in advance.

Mayor Bob Young, who does not have a regular vote on the commission, could vote to break a 5-5 tie and was absent during last month's deadlocked vote. He has said he would support amending the ordinance.

Commissioner Marion Williams said he would prevent the mayor from breaking that tie by casting an abstention, which he did once Monday.

"I'm not in support of anything that's not already on the books," Mr. Williams said.

That means that, unless a commissioner changes his vote, the existing protest law will stay put.

The proposed ordinance amendments also provide for an appeal process and judicial review in the event a protest permit is denied. The only recourse for denial under the existing ordinance is to sue the city.

In an effort to find compromise and what he called "a common-sense solution," Commissioner Tommy Boyles - who supports amended protest laws - offered a motion that would have directed the mayor, the sheriff and the commission's public safety chairman - Mr. Williams - to organize a meeting with Martha Burk and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Ms. Burk, from the National Council of Women's Organizations, and the Rev. Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition have threatened to protest Augusta National Golf Club's all-male membership at this year's Masters Tournament.

Mr. Boyles' motion failed from lack of support.

Commissioner Bobby Hankerson, who has opposed amending the protest ordinance, suggested simply prohibiting demonstrations along Washington Road. Picketing already is forbidden on Riverwalk Augusta.

Mr. Hankerson's idea was never seconded to become a formal motion.

The issue has gained national attention, with reporters from several outside media outlets attending Monday's commission meeting, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Associated Press and Newsday.

Those who support changing the ordinance are concerned about costing the city money in legal fees. The city's attorney has said the current ordinance does not comply with recent free speech court decisions.

"I think we are creating a problem, here," Commissioner Steve Shepard said.

"This problem is not going to go away in April," City Attorney Jim Wall said.

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.