Next time ministers get outraged, invite IRS to the party
By Sylvia Cooper| Columnist
Sunday, November 29, 2009

A group of ministers and elected officials, led by the Augusta Baptist Ministers Conference and other advocates for District 1 Augusta Commission candidate William Fennoy, tried to get black voters all fired up about the upcoming runoff between Mr. Fennoy and white candidate Matt Aitken by calling a news conference at the Marble Palace last week.

The ostensible purpose was to voice outrage that Mr. Aitken has refused to debate Mr. Fennoy at several forums held since the Nov. 3 general election, in which Mr. Aitken finished first and Mr. Fennoy second. Antioch Baptist Church's pastor, the Rev. K.B. Martin, said the only way to stop Mr. Aitken "is for black people to come out and vote on Dec. 1 and let him know that we will not be ignored."

If Mr. Aitken were to win -- as the whole world must know by now -- the Augusta Commission would tilt 6-4 in favor of whites. The Rev. Alexander Smith, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference board member, said an Aitken victory might require legal action. He said that it would be a "constitutional violation" and that an injunction might be in order, which is absurd, as Augusta Chronicle reporter Johnny Edwards well knew. So he asked the Rev. Smith whether he thought whites should be barred from qualifying to run for the District 1 seat, and the Rev. Smith said that was a possibility.

Then Johnny asked whether the two black candidates who qualified for the majority-white District 3 seat should not have been in that race. When there was no answer, and when he heard someone say not to answer, he repeated the question. "Did the two candidates who ran against Joe Bowles for the District 3 seat have no business being in that race?" And still no answer.

So, at that point, what should Johnny have done?

1. Demand an answer from the Rev. Smith?

2. Leave the news conference?

3. Remind the preachers present that, according to the Internal Revenue Service Publication 1828, Page 8, tax-exempt section 501(c)(3) organizations, such as churches, "must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate. A statement can identify a candidate not only by stating the candidate's name but also by other means such as showing a picture of the candidate, referring to political party affiliations, or other distinctive features of a candidate's platform or biography. All the facts and circumstances need to be considered to determine if the advocacy is political campaign intervention."

If Johnny had demanded an answer, the event could have turned uglier than it did when they falsely accused him of not reporting that Mr. Aitken is a convicted felon. If he had left, he couldn't have written a full account of what happened. So the answer is No. 3.

The only problem is that the IRS code is a toothless tiger. Otherwise, the Baptist Ministers Conference, the African Methodist Episcopal and Christian Methodist Episcopal ministers, civic, social and fraternal organizations wouldn't be holding news conferences blasting Mr. Aitken or anybody else running for office.

Anyway, the whole reason for calling the news conference and accusing Mr. Aitken of not assuring the people of District 1 that he has their concerns at heart is bogus because Mr. Aitken has been working on the streets of District 1 with some of its most abject citizens for years.

ANY STANDARD AT ALL. A highlight in the news conference came when Metro Courier Publisher Barbara Gordon asked if, given 10th Congressional District Republican Party Chairman Dave Barbee's 2007 e-mail, there was a concerted effort to dilute the black vote in District 1 by closing down two public housing projects, and whether this has been reported to the U.S. Department of Justice. She must have forgotten that K.B. Martin is on the housing authority because he said, "No, I don't think so. I'm on the housing authority board."

A MAN FOR ALL REASONS. The day after the Baptist Ministers gathered, Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason called another news conference and said it was time for both candidates to come together at a forum to show voters they're willing to work for all of them, regardless of skin color.

What was the purpose of Mr. Mason's press conference?

1. To get his mayoral campaign off and running early?

2. To keep the racial conversation the ministers have drummed up going?

3. Concern for the community?

4. Because Deke won't do it?

5. All of the above?

Answer: All of the above.

TOAST BY ANY OTHER NAME. After the news conference Monday, Augusta Commission committees met and voted to ask local lawmakers to call for a referendum on another penny sales tax. They call it a Municipal Option Sales Tax -- MOST, which could make Augusta one of the MOST, if not the most, penny-taxed cities in the state if the Legislature increases the state sales tax to fund transportation, as it has discussed doing for the past two years.

Then Augusta taxpayers will have LOST, SPLOST and MOST and be TOAST (Toasted On Aggregate Sales Taxes).

EAST IS EAST, AND WEST IS WEST, AND NEVER THE TWAIN SHALL MEET. One item on the Finance Committee agenda called for the transfer of $150,000 from the general fund to the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem Revitalization project, which, in the words of City Administrator Fred Russell, is "screeching to a halt with no dollars available to it."

"Without other dollars to front us to the end of December we would be closing the door on the project," he said. "What we're doing is asking ourselves for a loan."

The money for Commissioner Betty Beard's pet project would be paid back from the $1 hotel-motel room tax, but that money is tied to a management agreement for the trade, exhibit and event center the black commissioners have not agreed to.

Finance Committee Chairman Bowles said that he shared the concern about the revitalization project moving forward but that he hadn't seen the TEE center moving forward either. And when Mr. Mason, Mayor Pro Tem, made a motion to move the item to the full commission without a recommendation, Mrs. Beard bristled.

"I'm at the point it just doesn't bother me anymore," she said. "The citizens said it would never happen. It's not going to happen."

Then she glared at Mr. Bowles and said: "Do you know what this is all about? I'm going to explain it to you one more time."

When Mr. Bowles interrupted, she said, "I was speaking first," and he said, "I'm the chairman, aren't I? And I'm not going to have you talk to me like I'm one of your students."

She huffed out as he adjourned the meeting.

THE GHOST OF INCOMPETENCE PAST. Former Public Works Director Teresa Smith has decided she does want to settle her discrimination lawsuit against the city for $125,000 after all. In a closed meeting in October, commissioners, through consensus, gave the city's legal counsel permission to negotiate a settlement for up to $125,000. And before the negotiations, a city attorney directed the finance department to cut a check for $125,000. Then Ms. Smith rejected it. The whole thing raised questions about a check being issued without a formal, public vote of commissioners.

Since then, Ms. Smith has changed her mind, and Mr. Russell tried to have the latest agreement added to the legal administration committee agenda last week, but Commissioner Don Grantham blocked it. He said, "I wouldn't give her a damn dime."

The full commission will consider the settlement at Tuesday's meeting.

Why did Ms. Smith reject the offer, then change her mind?

1. She needs some Christmas shopping money?

2. She realized a bird in hand is worth two in a bush?

3. She realized $125,000 is not chicken feed?

4. All of the above?

Answer: All of the above.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228.

From the Sunday, November 29, 2009 edition of the Augusta Chronicle
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