Originally created 01/22/06

Curses, they're meeting in the john



It was dj vu all over again at last week's Augusta Commission meeting - almost. Some things did get done. The mayor and mayor pro tem made standing committee assignments after Commissioner Johnny Hatney and company dressed down City Attorney Stephen Shepard before God and everybody.

Mr. Hatney accused Mr. Shepard of giving them bad legal advice and lying at an earlier meeting by telling them the commission's standing committees could not meet.

"You keep on giving bad advice," Mr. Hatney said. "It just bothers my craw for the attorney to sit up here and tell a lie."

Mr. Shepard said his ruling was based on the fact that four of the five committees didn't have quorums, three of them because the new members hadn't been assigned to committees. Also, the assignments hadn't been approved by the full commission, as required by law.

Mr. Shepard said no one sought his advice about the matter until after the Jan. 3 commission meeting, during which the issue was tabled, which meant discussion had to cease then and there.

Mr. Hatney did apologize publicly to Mr. Shepard later. I guess you could call his saying, "If I misunderstood you, I apologize," an apology. Personally, I thought he should have said something like, "Mr. Shepard, I apologize for saying you told us a lie."

But, hey, that's just me.

Mr. Hatney also said commissioners can meet anytime they have a majority, even in the restroom if they want to.

I wonder if he knows about the state's open meetings law.

I guess City Ink will just have to start using the men's room at the Municipal Building on commission day.

THE SCAPEGOAT: Mr. Hatney has joined the coterie of commissioners including Betty Beard and Marion Williams in criticizing Mr. Shepard, whose $526,000 in fees on the water and sewer and airport bonds made them furious and gave new impetus to forming an in-house legal department as called for in the 1995 consolidation law. Mr. Williams openly derides his legal opinions, to the vocal delight of people in the audience.

Perhaps Mr. Shepard should take a page out of Richmond County School Board attorney Pete Fletcher's book. When the board issued a $115 million general obligation bond in 2002, Mr. Fletcher received $325,000 in fees as local counsel and gave $85,000 of the work to black Augusta attorney Ben Allen.

Or as former interim Mayor Willie Mays might say, he didn't eat the whole pie himself. And everybody was happy.

Commissioners' criticism about the lack of an in-house law department is directed at Mr. Shepard, as if he were responsible for it, which prompted Commissioner Don Grantham to remind the board he is not. Forming an in-house department was studied in 2002, but commissioners voted to continue with outside counsel.

"Blame these commissioners," Mr. Grantham said. "It's just not right to put the blame on him."

A BURNING ISSUE: Too bad commissioners wouldn't honor Commissioner Andy Cheek's request to postpone the mayor pro tem election until the next meeting, when he expects to be healed up enough from his second-degree burns to be there. As it turned out, they deadlocked on votes for Mr. Williams and Mr. Cheek for the second time this year, splitting along racial lines.

The thinking among white commissioners seems to be "anybody but Marion Williams." The thinking among black commissioners seems to be, "If not Marion Williams, then nobody." Offers by white commissioners to vote for a compromise candidate last week were rejected.

And this after a commission retreat aimed at improving communication, etc.

In my opinion, there's no lack of communication at all. They're communicating very well indeed. They just don't like the communications.

It certainly never crossed my mind that the Rev. Sam Tanksley's threat to put a curse on the mayor, Mr. Cheek, Joe Bowles and others who want the mayor to have a veto had anything to do with Mr. Cheek's getting burned in a flash fire until someone mentioned it last week.

In a letter to the editor after the Jan. 3 commission meeting, the Rev. Tanksley implored those who want to change commission rules to mend their ways and not force him to put a curse on them. He later said he wrote that to get attention. But that sure was some coincidence, seeing as how Mr. Cheek, who pushed for the changes, got burned the very next week.

Last week, the Rev. Tanksley disavowed any responsibility for the flash fire.

BOILING OVER: For the second time in about a week, Commissioner Jerry Brigham exploded because Mr. Williams dominates discussions. The first time it was because Mr. Williams interrupted him when he was speaking. The second time was Tuesday, when Mayor Deke Copenhaver kept letting Mr. Williams speak when other commissioners who had their hands up to be recognized were overlooked.

"This is ridiculous," Mr. Brigham bellowed. "Are we going to have a debate between you and two commissioners when there are 10 of us up here?"

Mr. Copenhaver apologized and recognized Mr. Bowles, who said, "I'm sort of scared now."

AN INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATOR: After Dr. Charles Smith, the president of the Augusta Branch of the NAACP, preached to commissioners for more than 10 minutes last week about how wrong they were to fire engineering department Director Teresa Smith, eight commissioners voted to accept his remarks as information.

Mr. Grantham showed his disgust by voting "present," which isn't really a vote at all.

"I didn't abstain," he said afterward. "I didn't even want to vote on that."

AUGUSTA COMMISSION ENVY? The Richmond County school board is considering a code of ethics, which would make it policy that board members be contentious to each other and Superintendent Charles Larke.

Yes, that's right. Contentious.

"The Richmond County Board of Education, recognizing the need and desiring to operate in an ethical, reasonable, prudent and contentious manner, adopts the following Code of Ethics to be followed by each Board Member," the proposed policy begins.

The policy also requires each member to sign a pledge to uphold the policy of being contentious.

Could they have meant "conscientious"?

Oh well, anybody can make a mistake. I should know.

Worth What You Pay For It: As one might expect, since he put on the mantle of mayor Jan. 4, Mr. Copenhaver has received so much unsolicited advice he can't remember it all.

"To use the gavel more on the commissioners as well as the crowd in the chambers. That is the No. 1 thing," he said.

"I've had little old ladies tell me I need to put on weight." (He weighs 155 pounds.)

People have warned him he'll gain weight eating at all the events he attends, but he said he's running so hard every day he doesn't think so.

"People have said I needed to get a haircut," he recalled. "Other people have said that my hair is too short after I got a haircut."

He also gets calls from people who have "issues," such as the resident of the Maxwell House apartments on Broad Street who called to say he needed to "take care of the alarm at the Greek church going off in the middle of the night."

"Just lots of unsolicited advice," he said.

And he's fine with that, but ultimately people need to realize it's his job to do what he sees is best for the community as a whole, he said.

And no matter how bizarre some of the advice he receives is, it could never top that received by his brother when he was Southeast regional director for FEMA in the Clinton administration. His brother got a call from somebody who told him he needed to install fans down the East Coast to blow hurricanes away.

City Ink thanks staff writers Greg Gelpi and Johnny Edwards for their contributions to this week's column.

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