Originally created 08/15/04

Augusta has come to a big fork in the road



The Augusta-Richmond County Committee for Good Government has its work cut out for itself.

For one thing, the Augusta-Richmond County Committee for Shabby Government would seem to have one heck of a head start.

For another thing, the Committee for Good Government concedes that it is nowhere near achieving its aim - which, by definition, is good government.

When I spoke to the committee at its monthly meeting recently at Julian Smith BBQ Pit, I polled the group as to whether we have good government now. In a sea of faces, I saw but a paltry few hands raise.

The rest not only said that they don't have good government, but also that they were a long way off from that place.

Then I asked them for their ideas on how to get there.

HAVE AN ODD number of commissioners, rather than the current 10, they said. Give the mayor a vote. Let commissioners pass motions with only a majority vote of those present, rather than require six "yes" votes. Set strict meeting or speaking time limits, to avoid horribly long meetings.

The mind, one lady in the audience advised me, can only absorb as much as the seat can endure.

Let the city administrator do his job without micromanaging, they said. Revisit and tweak the charter that set up the consolidated government in 1996. And, in a barb primarily intended for the school board but applicable to all government, the committee recommended reducing closed-door meetings.

These are all good ideas, many of which we have touted in our own editorials. It was gratifying to hear such ideas thrown back at me. It tells me we're on the right track.

Yet, nothing seems to change. Why?

Well, government is like the old joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb. Answer: Only one, but the light bulb has got to want to change.

This city's government either has to decide it needs to change, or it has to be convinced of it by a weary and restive public.

Why can't our leaders see the need for change? Even if they won't listen to the fine civic-minded folks at the Committee for Good Government, the numbers alone tell the tale: Richmond County's tax digest is flat, indicating no significant growth. And while the county's population rose 4.5 percent in the 1980s and 5.3 percent in the 1990s, nearby Columbia County's population was exploding with 64 percent and 35 percent growth, respectively.

If you had a business that was inching along, and then saw a competitor racing by like that, what would you do? Get mad? Get even? Or get going?

Those are the choices Augusta's leaders face today. They can sit and wistfully watch the goings-on in Columbia County - schools bursting at the seams, roads in near gridlock, retail set to boom - or they can try to compete.

In order to compete, that would require team work.

Augusta Commissioners can take a huge step toward that kind of team work by agreeing to a list of $380 million in capital improvement projects to be paid for by extending the county's 1-cent special purpose local option sales tax after next year.

THEY'RE WORKING on that now, but are coming perilously close to not getting the list finalized and on the Nov. 2 ballot. Thankfully, interim city Administrator Fred Russell has organized things and outlined a specific timeline for commissioners to follow.

They need to follow it in order to lead.

This community has reached a monumental fork in the road. One path, marked "Status Quo," is a dead end. The other path - the one in which we invest in ourselves and change the skyline and the landscape with the sales tax projects - leads to the future.

The only question at this point is whether we have a good enough government to get us there.

(Editor's note: The writer is editorial page editor of The Augusta Chronicle.)