Originally created 12/25/05

No Christmas truce in politicians' wars



Merry Christmas, and God rest ye merry gentlemen and women, too.

Last week's showdown at the Marble Palace wore me out.

It's not every day you go to a meeting where the Marshal's Office calls the sheriff for backup, but that's what happened Monday - the last Augusta Commission meeting of the year.

Battle lines had been drawn the week before after Commissioner Andy Cheek presented his hot-button list of items. They were:

- Hire interim Fire Chief Howard Willis,

- Fire engineering department Director Teresa Smith,

- Give the administrator hiring and firing power,

- Ask legislators to change the consolidation law to give the mayor a veto,

- And eliminate the six-vote requirement to pass measures in favor of a simple majority vote.

Commission chambers were like a pressure cooker Monday, and if you wanted to gauge the status of race relations in Augusta, you should have been there. The white crowd in the room supported all five motions, especially those concerning commission rules. The black crowd opposed all five.

Speculation had swirled all week over whether outgoing Commissioner Freddie Handy would show up for his last meeting, and if he did, whether he would break ranks with his black colleagues. We'll never know because Mr. Handy was absent, and said later in the week he was in the VA hospital in Atlanta.

There was no question Commissioner Bobby Hankerson would show up. He's that kind of fellow. And he had said he would not vote for the rule changes but would vote to appoint Chief Willis and to dismiss Mrs. Smith. And that's what he did.

Mayor Pro Tem Marion Williams was in his element, leading the charge against the changes to the shouts and applause of supporters when he landed a shot.

"I think it's unfair," he said of the motion to fire Mrs. Smith. "I think it's low down and dirty for us to sit here and act like we don't know what's going on. They want to go back to the good old boy system 40 years ago."

"Ain't gonna happen," said a man in the audience.

Mr. Cheek and Commissioner Don Grantham made their points well, but neither they nor Commissioners Jimmy Smith, Roy Rearden or Barbara Sims could match Mr. Williams' fiery rhetoric. And who could blame them for not trying? Who wants to risk being hoisted on his own potentially politically incorrect petard? Nobody but Parson Williams can get away with that.

During Mr. Williams' diatribe over the motion to fire Mrs. Smith, he said that if the board fired her it should fire Administrator Fred Russell, too, because Mr. Russell must not have been doing his job. After all, when asked during the meeting, Mr. Russell admitted he had given Mrs. Smith an above-average performance evaluation.

When the board voted to fire Mrs. Smith with Mr. Hankerson voting for the motion, some people in the crowd at the door began calling him, "Black Judas" and "Uncle Tom."

So much for unity.

Through it all, the commissioners didn't even acknowledge Mayor Deke Copenhaver's earlier memo calling for compromise and setting a positive tone for the community.

THE DIVORCE IS FINAL: The more Mr. Williams talked during Monday's meeting, the redder Mr. Cheeks' face got, and afterward he accused the man he once described as his "twin brother" of bigotry and race mongering. He expressed bitterness at being attacked by Mr. Williams after he, himself, had often supported him with his vote for the past six years.

"The problem with Marion is he can't count to six," Mr. Cheek said. "I'm tired of being stepped on."

You have to wonder if that means Mr. Cheek won't support Mr. Williams' favored race track project.

As for the other commissioners, Mr. Grantham, Mr. Smith, and others remained ticked off at Administrator Russell. Despite his private complaints to them about Mrs. Smith's job performance, he told all at the public meeting that her performance was "above average," not mentioning the frequent complaints from builders and engineers.

But then, they didn't ask him.

The day after the meeting, we were told Mr. Russell had a root canal. All he needed to round out his week was a colonoscopy.

CIVIC CENTER FOOD FIGHT: A day after the commission clash, tempers flared at the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority meeting when members Ellis Albright and William Holden seemed to forget the Christmas theme of peace and good will.

The flare-up began during a discussion about the civic center taking control of concession sales after its contract with Centerplate ends in February. Mr. Albright said he felt the authority was trying to tell Centerplate officials how to run their business.

"I'm getting sick and tired of this," he said. "This is why this board is not progressing, just like this doggone city! Because we're sitting here talking about stuff that don't make no sense, all because other people have personal agendas and not the agenda of this city!"

Mr. Holden interrupted to say the coliseum authority had been talking about taking over concessions ever since he could remember, to which Mr. Albright said he had never heard that.

"That's not unusual," Mr. Holden replied. "There's a lot of things you don't know about."

Mr. Albright then asked Mr. Holden if he "wanted to take it outside."

"Come on!" he shouted. "Come on!"

"I'm gonna be going outside," Mr. Holden said.

A boxing match was averted when Chariman Millard Cox took control of the meeting, and J.R. Riles suggested authority members should act like gentlemen.

City Ink thanks Kate Lewis for her contribution to this week's column.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.