Augusta's 'going nowhere,' activist says

Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Woody Merry

Woody Merry's town hall meeting Thursday night found him in full-fledged motivational speaker mode, standing alone on the Fort Discovery auditorium stage and whipping up an audience of 35 with tales of corruption, graft, hypocrisy and fiscal waste in Augusta's government.

The city activist spoke with the fury of a fire-and-brimstone evangelist, with the theatrics of a desperate football coach in a halftime pep talk.

"I am sick and tired of being lied to, being cheated," he said. "I won't run for office, but somebody has got to stand up and say enough is enough."

He told the group he didn't want to be there, that he shut his government reform group, CSRA Help, in early 2008 because he thought the city had a working government.

But he's back now because he's been convinced otherwise, and he went through a litany of reasons why, usually prefacing each topic with, "Good God!"

He described a government that blows hundreds of thousands of dollars on useless feasibility studies and loses millions through a Procurement department that doesn't pick lowest bidders, yet pays its police and firefighters paltry wages and is about to lose Fort Discovery and the Augusta Municipal Golf Course.

"We're going nowhere, except $8 million in the hole," he said, referring to the $8.6 million shortfall in the working 2010 budget.

He said elected officials -- whom he didn't name -- are hooking up friends and relatives with city contracts. He lamented that the city's water consulting firm, CH2M Hill, has gone above and beyond in fixing problems in the Utilities Department, yet commissioners have shaken them down, told them what subcontractors to hire, and now want the company fired.

"Oh my God!" he said. "If anybody should be suing anybody, CH2M Hill should be suing us."

In the end, he laid out a plan of action: He said he wants to form a "shadow government" -- a group of 10 people, perhaps people interested in someday running for office -- to represent each commission district and open dialogues with the 10 commissioners.

He asked that community meetings be held to select the members.

"The method to my madness is the shadow government," Mr. Merry said. "Let me tell you right now, it's probably going to fail, but I've failed for 10 years, and I'm still trying."

Lori Davis, leader of the "concerned citizens of Harrisburg" group, which she's renamed "concerned citizens of Richmond County," said she's taking him up on it.

"I think it was great," she said of Thursday's meeting. "I say he was on the pulse of what new Augustans -- people new to politics, age 40 to 50 -- are wanting in this town."

Former Commissioner Andy Cheek was also in attendance, and said he wonders if Mr. Merry is like himself -- having cried wolf so many times that he's lost credibility.

But he said he supports him.

"People have got to get involved, or Augusta's going to end up like East St. Louis," Mr. Cheek said. "At least Woody is willing to stand up and make something happen."

Mr. Merry said his past efforts -- which include a string of lawsuits against the city -- have put him at risk.

"Yes, I have been shot at," he said. "Yes, my mailbox has been torn up. Yes, I have received threats. Yes, yes, yes, yes. These people play for keeps."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.