Gas prices, shortages don't slow down city officials

Got gas?

That was the big question last week. It was like deja vu -- the '70s all over again. Long lines at pumps, fistfights. Made me want to get out my love beads and start baking my own bread again. One thing was definitely different from the '70s though. Back then, we didn't wait in line to pay $4 a gallon and feel lucky to get it.

Anyway, all the news about gasoline caused me to think about how our Augusta commissioners are faring through the crisis. Since Jan. 1, six of them had pumped 2,329 gallons. You didn't see the $7,870.62 bill, but you paid it.

Commissioner Corey Johnson is still in the lead with 758 gallons, barely ahead of Alvin Mason with 627 gallons. Calvin Holland burned 423 gallons; Mayor Pro Tem Betty Beard , 187; Don Grantham , 193; and Jimmy Smith , 139 gallons.

At 20 miles per gallon, Mr. Johnson could have driven from one end of the county to the other 541 times, and Mr. Mason could have done it 448 times. Together, those six could have driven 46,580 miles, or if the miles were divided equally, each could have driven every road in Richmond County at least seven times.

WHAT ABOUT A LITTLE FEE NEGOTIATING JUST TO HUMOR US? Last week, the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority approved paying a $10,000 legal bill from Evita Paschal , the attorney representing member William Fennoy , without voting on it because they'd already approved payment last month, even though they placed no cap on it.

A majority of the board was determined not to discuss the matter, and Janice Jenkins squelched Chairman Richard Isdell 's feeble attempt to suggest they ought to vote on an amount with: "We've already voted on it. That's the end of it."

As you will no doubt recall, "The Defender" Fennoy and Woody "The Defender" Merry were charged with misdemeanor simple battery in Richmond County Civil and Magistrate Court after a less than stellar match-up at James Brown Arena before an authority meeting in May. The authority paid Ms. Paschal $3,000 for representing Mr. Fennoy in that court proceeding.

Both men pleaded not guilty in Richmond County State Court and will likely go to trial in October.

Ms. Paschal's latest bill did not specify hourly rates and times spent interviewing witnesses and "several visits to the crime location," in addition to "Extensive research and prepartion (sic) for Trials."

I got to wondering whether the $10,000 fee was reasonable for a misdemeanor simple battery trial in State Court, so I asked our newsroom legal expert Sandy Hodson, who did a little checking around.

She talked with three experienced criminal defense lawyers who gave estimates of $1,500. $1,750 and $2,000, plus $100 to $200 an hour if there is a trial or complex plea negotiation.

For much more serious cases, say a felony murder case in Richmond County Superior Court, one attorney said he would require a minimum of $25,000 as a retainer and expect additional expenses, another said $15,000 to $30,000, and the third said maybe $10,000 to $15,000.

The lead defense attorney for Renaldo Rivera , the rapist and serial killer arrested in 2000 and sentenced to death in 2004, billed the city about $15,000.

OUCH! Some folks want to put the bite on Richmond County residents and businesses with a 50 cents per month tax to fund the county's mosquito control program. (They call it a "service fee," but isn't that the same rose by a different name?)

They're sending Fred Koehle , the program's operations manager, to pitch the tax to commissioners at Monday's administrative services committee meeting.

The tax would be added to about 62,000 monthly water bills to raise $31,000 a month and $372,000 a year.

WHAT ARE THEY HIDING OVER THERE? Believe me when I tell you Augusta officials do not believe in sunshine. If they did, they would not allow what is going on with public records requests to continue.

When the in-house legal department took over in February, General Counsel Chiquita Johnson took on the handling of open records and open meetings questions directed to the mayor, commissioners and city administrator.

And with that, the iron curtain came down. Once the legal department gets involved, its main goal seems to be to deny the request, if possible, or make getting the information so expensive as to not be worth it.

They obviously are spending hours researching legal cases to justify their refusals. It serves no purpose to go into details here because you'd be bored with all the legalese. But I called around to see how other counties do it.

I talked to Columbia County reporter Donnie Fetter . He said, "I usually just call and tell them what I want. Not once have I had to file an open records request."

Jason Smith , of The McDuffie Mirror in Thomson, said occasionally some city or county officials will ask for a letter if the subject could be political, just to cover themselves.

Morris News Service Bureau Chief Walter Jones said most government agencies he deals with in Atlanta just give him the information he asks for over the phone.

Leslie Cohn at the Savannah Morning News said the city and Chatham County have been especially good about providing open records. Athens Banner-Herald government reporter Blake Aued said he's probably filed only a half-dozen written requests in three years.

"I usually just call up and ask them," he said.

Athens-Clarke County Public Information Officer Sandy Turner said she realized from the beginning that a centralized model of communication would not work with 36 government departments.

"So our emphasis has been on training our employees to handle media inquiries effectively," she said. "We talk to them about what constitutes an open meeting and open record. We started with department directors, then moved to assistant directors and now into middle management. Our policy with records is never to require a Freedom of Information request if the record is public and there's no compelling reason for it."

YOU'VE COME A LONG WAY, BABY: Former Georgia House Speaker Pro Tem Jack Connell turned 89 this month and says he's working on 90.

He was walking into Sandwich City a week ago when the parking lot jumped up and hit him on the forehead. Isn't it awful how things like that happen? He had a few stitches and was at home for a week, but he was back minding the store Friday. Sort of cranky though.

His wife, Nan , is another story. She quit smoking recently and wasn't used to having a man around the house all day, so she's a nervous wreck. Still, she didn't give in and light up. And the good news is that in about five years she won't even think about cigarettes.

SO HAVE YOU: People have been asking me lately whether rumors that I was going to retire soon are true, and when I tell them they are, they inevitably ask why, and I tell them the truth. I will be celebrating my 39th birthday again in October, and sooner or later somebody's going to catch on.

Then they inevitably ask what I'm going to do when I retire, and I tell them the truth: I don't know. Maybe I'll start drinking in the morning.

Ernie said we're going to freelance and write children's books. He's 10 times smarter than I am. He's just not as patient. A Vietnam War veteran, you know, although I suspect he was a little crazy before he ever went there.

Everything makes him mad, and he doesn't believe 95 percent of what any official says, like that the sheriff's office doesn't know anything about any pit bull fighting in McDuffie County. He says they know where it's going on and who's doing it. He says the only thing that will change by my pitching such a fit about Sweet Red being put out at the end of my driveway and the dead pit bills dumped along the road is they'll just dump them on another road.

He might be right. Unfortunately, too often, he is.

NO HOME SWEET HOME FOR SWEET RED? Sweet Red's situation is tenuous. His new owner has an English bulldog who's extremely jealous of him, so we might have to find him another home.

He is getting better every day with the wonderful care he's had at McDuffie Animal Hospital. I went in Thursday to pay his bill, expecting it to be at least $500, only to be told out it had been "taken care of."

Other kindhearted people called offering to help pay the bill. Of course, Molly's Militia founder Elaine van der Linden was the first, along with Carl Langley in Aiken and Pat Gross and Bonnie Ruben .

City Ink thanks Staff Writer Sandy Hodson for her contribution to this week's column.

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

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