Originally created 03/12/06

Mayor finds new muscle

Like The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy, the mayor of Augusta always had more power than he realized.

A judge opined Friday that the mayor can interpret an abstention by an Augusta commissioner however he likes - meaning one commissioner can't filibuster the city's business by not voting.

Under commission rules, the mayor can vote only in the advent of a 5-5 tie. To avoid that, some commissioners - most notably Marion "Dr. No" Williams - have abstained when they thought the mayor would vote contrary to their wishes. For the past decade of consolidated government rule, it was presumed that ended the matter.

Not so, according to Superior Court Judge Carlisle Overstreet.

"(T)he mayor determines the effect of the commissioner voluntarily removing himself/herself (i.e., voluntarily abstaining, physically removing himself/herself from the meeting)," the judge wrote in his Friday ruling. "(I)t is the mayor's duty to count the votes and announce the results.... Thus, simply stated, it is the duty of the mayor to determine how to count an abstention and he/she does this when he/she announces the result of the vote.

"The mayor, who is elected by the voters of the entire county, is the deciding authority as to the final actions of the entire commission." Commissioners may vote to override the mayor's interpretation, the judge says, but ultimately, he adds, "If the voters of Augusta-Richmond County do not like the way he/she handles their business, they can vote accordingly."

Guess what, folks: The position of mayor just got a whole lot stronger in Augusta - although, like Glenda the Good Witch, Judge Overstreet seems to say, "You've had the power all along."

Typically humble in accepting it, Mayor Deke Copenhaver had to acknowledge Friday that his position has been made stronger. "The good Lord puts things in your lap," he said.

The judge's ruling came in a lawsuit filed by citizen activist Woody Merry and his attorney Joe Neal, aimed at halting Marion Williams' "obstruction by abstention" tactics that have been holding the city back. And while Merry and Neal lost the case - the judge declined to order Williams to vote and to declare him illegally sitting as mayor pro-tem - the case did prompt the judge to shine a light on the mayor's power to count abstentions as he likes.

That may be a gift to the community that Merry bought with his own dime.

And consider the context and timing: On the heels of last week's announcement of a new $107 million community center downtown, funded largely by the late McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc, and the ribbon cutting on a $54 million Cancer Research Center at the Medical College of Georgia - and a little-noticed decision by the commission to back the mayor's plan to auction off 10 marketable city-owned properties - the sense of momentum was palpable in Augusta this past week.

It's a new and exciting feeling.

"I see a lot of good on the horizon," Mayor Copenhaver said. "This was a historic week for Augusta."

It was, indeed.


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