Chronic nuisance ordinance becomes chronic refrain

The political pulse of Augusta quickened a little last week, as candidates for city commission and school board seats in the Nov. 3 election expounded on issues such as crime, race relations and, of course, the trade, exhibit and event center.

What happened to all the good bribery stories?

Anyway, on Tuesday, candidates -- or their spokesmen -- for Augusta Commission Districts 1, 3 and 5 and the District 5 seat on the Richmond County school board spoke at the Committee for Good Government meeting. On Thursday and Friday, District 1 candidates JoRae Jenkins, Matt Aitken, William Fennoy and Butch Palmer made their election pitches and answered questions at forums in Harrisburg.

HOOKERS, DEALERS AND SLUM LORDS, OH, MY: I must say there was a lot of generalization going on in Harrisburg, a lot of pie-in-the-sky idealism about bringing people together and such and few specific plans for addressing any of the city's problems, such as the quality of some of its citizenry. I don't suppose anybody can do anything about that.

Mr. Palmer, however, does have a plan he and his supporters say will clean up Augusta and drive the riff-raff out. It's called a Chronic Nuisance Property Ordinance, which I'm sure you've heard about by now. And he pounded away on it every chance he got.

In answering a question about what he planned to do for Harrisburg if elected, Mr. Palmer said the ordinance he wants Augusta commissioners to approve would address the issue of "cars coming and going, coming and going" in his neighborhood.

"We all know they're not selling Avon," he said. "They're not selling Avon! Or is that just me (who thinks that)?"

After Ms. Jenkins had answered a question about her plan for dealing with crime in Augusta by saying more neighborhood watches would help, Mr. Palmer responded to the same question by saying, "As far as neighborhood watches, when it gets as bad as it is in our neighborhood, the drug dealers and prostitutes are the neighborhood watch."

ARE YOU TALKIN' TO ME? Earlier in the week, Harrisburg resident Lori Davis asked Augusta commissioners to set up a task force to work on a Chronic Nuisance Property Ordinance, but they flicked her request off like a flea on the body politic. So Ms. Davis and the other folks from Harrisburg staged a protest outside the Marble Palace after the meeting, but it won't do them any good.

As Commissioner Joe Jackson said after the meeting, "For them to get up on their bandstand and picket the commission, you're going about it the wrong way."

In other words, don't get up on your bandstand and grandstand. That's our job.

Seriously, except for Commissioners Joe Bowles, Corey Johnson and Don Grantham, most commissioners acted sort of confused by Ms. Davis' request, like they couldn't get through their heads what the difference was between the city's existing nuisance ordinance, which deals with shacks and junk, and one that deals with drug dealers, tire squealers and hookers. Maybe they were just playing dumb. Or maybe they just don't like people from Harrisburg telling them what to do.

Truth is, they don't like anybody telling them what to do. But then who does?

AN EXERCISE IN PAIN MANAGEMENT: I'm telling you the truth, I'd almost rather have a root canal than try to get public information from the city through general counsel Chiquita Johnson's office.

Recently, I decided it was time to do an update on how much business our distinguished state Sen. J.B. Powell was doing with the city's water consultant, CH2MHill, and its companion company Operations Management International, which manages the city's wastewater treatment plant.

Then-Commissioner Powell, you will remember, was chairman of the city's public works committee in 1999 and used his influence to get the city's largest contract at the time awarded to OMI. The last time I checked, in 2004, I learned that Mr. Powell had done $2.17 million in subcontract work for OMI and its subcontractors. He also had been awarded a $600,000 contract to inspect the city's sewer system. I got that information with one simple freedom of information letter to the city.

Two weeks ago, I wrote to City Administrator Fred Russell asking for the amount of money the two companies had paid companies owned by Mr. Powell and/or his wife, Charanne, Total Maintenance Solutions and Integrated Site Solutions, since Jan. 1, 2000, which was right after Mr. Powell left the commission.

THIS WILL JUST STING A LITTLE: In a few days I received an e-mail from city staff attorney Kenneth Bray with a year-by-year breakdown of amounts CH2MHill had paid to the Powell companies from 2000 on. But since the total was only $1.9 million, less than the amount in the report I'd received six years ago, I amended the request to include the amount CH2MHill and OMI and their subcontractors had paid the Powell companies.

Last Monday, I got an e-mail from Mr. Bray saying some of the information might be in files that had been ordered from archives, some had been destroyed and some was on hand -- and it was going to cost $30.58 to get it. The law department had dumped the request on the finance department. So I e-mailed him Wednesday stating I would like to talk to him about the request because I didn't think the information is in finance department files and didn't think it was worthwhile to have them comb through piles of old bills. I asked him to call me before proceeding.

Later that day, I sent him this e-mail:

"Dear Mr. Bray,

"Since I sent you the last e-mail, I have talked to several people about who has the information I am looking for, and I was told that the city's contracts with CH2MHill and OMI call for them to share their work with local and small businesses and maintain files on that information, which is public record. I also was told that you could get this information by calling the Augusta Utilities Department and asking them to call Larry Scott for the info on CH2MHill and Gary Andrews for the information on OMI, and they could access it immediately.

"Please let me hear from you about this."

I'm still waiting.

A SMART WAY? Negotiations are under way for the city to buy the old Smartway Furniture building in Southgate Plaza on Gordon Highway and have the sheriff's offices there. Buying the property and renovating it reportedly will cost about $8 million.

OUT OF COMMISSION: After eight years of having his arm twisted by commissioners, employees and the media, Mr. Russell will go into the hospital Monday to have it repaired.

Actually, Mr. Russell injured his arm in a bicycle wreck 10 years ago and had to have a steel rod installed. Now it needs to come out. Mr. Russell said some would say they need to put it in his back now, but he was just joking.

SO FAR, SO GOOD: Last week I took a flu shot and thought I had the flu for two days afterward. I think some people think it was my imagination, but thermometers don't lie.

To make matters worse, a snake bit our latest stray pup, Honey, on her foot. I took her to Augusta Animal Emergency because it was after hours. That is really a nice place. The handsome young veterinarian, Dr. George Runnells, was very good and thorough in explaining my options. The bottom line was he offered a $200 treatment and an $800 treatment. I gambled and went for the $200 one.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228.

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