It might be a new year, with new faces, but it was business as usual for the Augusta Commission on Tuesday.
Commissioners deadlocked along racial lines on a number of issues, including a new mayor pro tem, committee assignments and a severance package for fired Engineering Department Director Teresa Smith.
Commissioner Andy Cheek called it "government inaction."
Immediately after Commissioners-elect Calvin Holland, Jerry Brigham, Betty Beard and Joe Bowles were sworn in, the first commission meeting of the year began with the board stalled on the election of a mayor pro tem and the appointment of standing committees.
It wasn't long before the issues were tabled until the end of the meeting, at which time they were tabled again - until the next meeting, which will take place after commissioners go on a retreat to try to improve communication.
On the mayor pro tem issue, Commissioner Richard Colclough nominated current Mayor Pro Tem Marion Williams, and Commissioner Don Grantham nominated Mr. Cheek.
The votes for each fell along racial lines and would have tied had Mr. Williams not abstained, making the vote 5-4 in each case, which prevented a tie and thus stopped Mayor Deke Copenhaver from casting a deciding vote.
With that, Mr. Brigham moved to table the issue. The vote to table passed on a 6-4 vote with Mr. Williams, Mr. Holland, Mr. Colclough and Commissioner Johnny Hatney, who was sworn in privately in mid-December, voting no.
Commissioners then moved to the appointment of standing committees, and Mr. Williams claimed his right to carry on as mayor pro tem and make the appointments since the election had been tabled.
Mr. Cheek moved to table the appointments, which resulted in a 5-5 tie, and Mr. Copenhaver cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of tabling.
Mr. Williams objected, saying the mayor could not vote to "break a tie on the board of commissioners," only on their motions. City Attorney Stephen Shepard opined that Mr. Williams was wrong, and the issue was tabled.
About that time, someone in the audience noted that pre-meeting prayers calling for unity had not been answered.
Commissioners did manage to agree to rehire Mr. Shepard on a month-to-month basis at the same salary on the motion of Mr. Williams, who along with Mrs. Beard and other commissioners want to create a total in-house legal department.
Mr. Hatney said the city's consolidation law calls for an in-house department. Mr. Shepard, however, said the city attorney's office is authorized by local legislation that pre-dates the consolidation law.
Later in the meeting, the Rev. James Williams Jr., representing a group of concerned Augusta ministers, spoke against the Dec. 19 commission vote to fire Engineering Department Director Teresa Smith and to hire Howard Willis as permanent fire chief.
The Rev. Williams said the actions were not acceptable to the entire community because it looked as though they had been made along racial lines, with five white commissioners and former Commissioner Bobby Hankerson voting to hire Mr. Willis and fire Mrs. Smith. He called for an investigation of various city departments, including the Recreation Department.
Commissioners voted to receive his comments as information. In seconding that motion, Mr. Cheek said that he has voted across racial lines for the past six years, but now that he wants to reform city government black commissioners have turned against him.
"I've gone through being the sixth man with a tan to the No. 2 man in the Klan," he said. "Unity is not, 'I'll be with you if you do it my way.'"
Commissioners also couldn't agree on a severance package for Mrs. Smith, who was placed on administrative leave when she was fired.
City Administrator Fred Russell proposed offering one month's pay for each year of service up to six months and accrued vacation pay for Mrs. Smith.
Mr. Williams said he "totally disagreed" with that. "If we fire somebody, why would we give them a package of any kind?"
Commissioner Jerry Brigham agreed.
Mr. Hatney voiced surprise that the commission has the power to fire an employee without a recommendation from the administrator.
"If we're going to supervise, we don't need an administrator," he said. "We could be saving money."
Commissioners voted 5-4 to reject the severance package with Mr. Hatney abstaining, which prevented a tie vote.
In the end, on Mr. Hatney's recommendation, they agreed to leave Mrs. Smith on administrative leave with pay until the next meeting.
After the meeting, Mr. Cheek said he saw about 10 different examples of why commission rules need to be changed.
"We saw everything from the administrator having hiring-firing power to abstentions, to mayor veto," he said. "The mayor was denied the right to vote today. It's a clear-cut case of, 'If I don't get my way, then I'm going to stonewall the works.'"
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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