High court backs city's voting law

ATLANTA - The Georgia Supreme Court has upheld the way the Augusta Commission votes, prompting the community activist who filed the lawsuit to pressure state lawmakers for changes.

But the lawmakers who represent Augusta and Richmond County might not budge on changes to the law that consolidated the two governments more than a decade ago.

Rep. Quincy Murphy, D-Augusta, said he has no plan to bring up consolidation changes this legislative session.

"We've dealt with that long enough," said Mr. Murphy, the chairman of the county's legislative delegation. "Our local government's beginning to work together, and I don't think we need to open that old wound."

On Monday, the state's highest court ruled unanimously that commissioners can abstain from voting and the mayor cannot count abstentions as either "yes" or "no" votes.

The justices based their decision on Augusta-Richmond County's consolidation law, enacted by the Legislature in 1995, which specifically states that the commission passes an item only when six members vote for it.

Civic activist Woody Merry, who sued last year, argued that a simple majority of the commissioners who are present should be enough to approve an item.

He filed the suit last year after Commissioner Marion Williams, who was elected mayor pro tempore in 2005, repeatedly abstained no matter who was nominated and was retained in the position when no one else was elected to replace him.

By abstaining, he prevented the mayor from casting a tie-breaking vote, a maneuver commissioners have used several times in the past.

Mr. Williams, who was replaced as mayor pro tempore last month by Commissioner Betty Beard, said the Supreme Court's ruling upheld what he has been saying all along.

"I had a perfect right to abstain," he said. "It was common sense."

Mr. Williams also questioned the legal cost of the suit and appeal.

"How much money did it cost the taxpayers to go through this charade?" he asked. "Those folks ought to be made to pay every dime it cost this city."

In deciding whether abstentions should count as "no" votes, the justices pointed out that an initial draft of the commission's rules allowed that but that the requirement was dropped from the final version.

"Thus, the Commission knowingly and purposely rejected a rule requiring that abstentions be counted as negative votes," Justice George Carley wrote in the court's opinion.

Mr. Merry said the Legislature now needs to fix what he and Augusta attorney Joe Neal Jr. say was done incorrectly in the beginning.

"We have a plan in place to combat this," Mr. Merry said.

Their first step is to lobby area legislators to change the consolidation act to allow for the simple majority, to give the mayor veto powers and to make abstentions count as a vote.

"They (the Supreme Court justices) basically said that the consolidation act and the rules of procedure allow this insanity," Mr. Neal said.

"And it's really up to the politicians to change it. If they don't change it now, every one of them needs to be impeached or recalled because it's a ridiculous situation."

Augusta Chronicle reporters Tom Corwin and Sylvia Cooper contributed to this story.

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (678) 977-4601 or vicky.eckenrode@morris.com.

ON THE WEB

To read the full Georgia Supreme Court opinion, go to: www.gasupreme.us/pdf/s06a1690.pdf