Commissioners enjoy dinner and a meeting
By Sylvia Cooper| Correspondent
Sunday, January 10, 2010

Before the swearing-in of new Augusta commissioners on Tuesday, five men from the Augusta Transition Center, aptly named Men in Transition, sang The Storm Is Passing Over , which everybody thought was a most excellent choice. But the thunder and lightning weren't quite over, and still aren't in fact.

However, the performance certainly set the stage for very moving remarks from District 1 Commissioner Matt Aitken as he recalled how he'd been where the men from the transition center had been and how a man ministering to him in prison told him "God can rebuild a life."

"God has done that 20 years later, and I am District 1 commissioner," he said.

THE NEXT ORDER OF BUSINESS: Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason was re-elected, and the meeting was briefly adjourned so he and Mayor Deke Copenhaver could go to the mayor's office and pretend they were putting together the list of standing committees. I say "pretending" because Mr. Mason had already e-mailed the list out the day before, and there was already quite a bit of consternation over the appointment of Commissioner Corey Johnson as Engineering Services Committee chairman -- instead of last year's chairman, Commissioner Jimmy Smith -- and the absence of Commissioner Don Grantham on that committee.

I'd already heard that Mr. Mason said state Sen. J.B. Powell threatened him about not reappointing Mr. Smith. When asked whether that was true, Mr. Mason said, "I'm not going to go there," which I told him must mean it was true. Otherwise, he would have said it was not true.

Mr. Powell said he'd asked Mr. Mason not to disrespect Mr. Smith and Mr. Grantham in their last year in office by not reappointing them.

"I don't know how he got that there was a threat," Mr. Powell said. "The tone of the conversation was not like that at all. There wasn't any raised blood pressure on my part. I just thought they ought not be disrespected."

OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW: Also at the first meeting of the year, in accordance with tradition, commissioners appointed the attorney, but first they had to agree to buy out the one who had been keeping the media at bay, Atlanta lawyers working and Sam's Club in business for the past two years.

A majority of the board directed Administrator Fred Russell to make General Counsel Chiquita Johnson an offer that would get her out of town and out of their hair, which he did, but during the meeting some of those who'd signed off on it started crawfishing about the nine months' pay and benefits like it was all a big surprise.

New District 5 Commissioner Bill Lockett said he was going to vote no on Ms. Johnson's resignation because some commissioners had discussed it and left him out of the loop. He then chastised his colleagues and reminded them of the 2006 Code of Conduct, which says commissioners would investigate and debate before making a decision or taking action.

He concluded by saying, "I would hope that would be the last time this commission would do that," which is pretty hypocritical since he'd gone to dinner with six other commissioners at Villa Europa the Saturday night before. Three weren't invited (see below). And he might not have known it was a violation of the open meetings law, but you know what they say about ignorance of the law being no excuse.

THE SCHNITZEL SEVEN: Commissioner Joe Jackson took it upon himself to arrange a dinner party at Villa Europa the Saturday night before Tuesday's commission meeting. Attending were Mayor Pro Tem Mason and Commissioners Joe Bowles , Jerry Brigham , Johnson, Lockett and Commissioner-elect Aitken, which constituted a quorum and a violation of the open meetings law if commission business was discussed, which it was by all accounts. There also was a quorum of the Finance and Public Services committees.

Commissioners Grantham, Smith and J.R. Hatney were not on the guest list.

Mr. Jackson got very upset when asked about the meeting, and the more he talked about it the more upset he got. In fact, he got so upset, I started consoling him.

"There, there. It's not all that bad," I said.

"We just got together to meet and eat dinner," he said. "No more was discussed than in a commission meeting. In my opinion, there was nothing newsworthy. ... The two new commissioners were asking, 'What do you do when a constituent calls?'

"Did I screw up? I probably did. Oh well, I'm sorry. To me it was nothing different than they did 10 years ago when they'd all go to T-Bonz after the meetings."

Mr. Jackson said he guessed Mr. Grantham and Mr. Smith thought they discussed committee assignments, but they didn't. (They probably didn't need to. They'd settled all that in an earlier meeting, or so I hear.)

It was "like orientation for commissioners," Mr. Jackson said, which made me wonder why Mr. Brigham was there since he has been on the commission a total of 11 years, so I asked him.

"It was a meeting of the young Turks," he said. "I went to see what was going on."

Mr. Johnson said they talked about commission resources, such as City Clerk Lena Bonner , who he did not know could be so helpful when he first came on the board.

Mr. Grantham said he didn't know why he wasn't invited. "I must be a bad guy," he said, adding that he knew they discussed committee assignments.

Mr. Smith said he didn't care, and Mr. Hatney said he hadn't even heard they'd had a meeting.

So the question is, "Did they wheel and deal as they ate their veal?"

Even if they didn't, it still doesn't look good.

IT'S ONLY (YOUR) MONEY: Although it's a new year, some of the same old complaints and requests will be on Monday's commission committee agendas, including two protests over bids on construction projects and the transfer of another $150,000 to pay outside attorneys, on top of the $1,035,000 approved for that purpose in 2009.

Mr. Grantham will face his first challenge as Finance Committee chairman as he deals with five different requests to buy about $3,500 worth of tickets to upcoming events. There are requests from the UGA Terry College of Business 2010 Economic Outlook luncheon; the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity 13th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity breakfast; the South Augusta Rotary and ASU's ROTC annual Jimmy Smith Youth Challenge spaghetti supper; the Augusta Branch NAACP 36th annual Freedom Fund Banquet; and the Lucy Craft Laney Museum's gala.

DRIVE A LITTLE FARTHER AND SAVE THE MOST: The commission, school officials and Richmond County lawmakers met Thursday to discuss legislative issues. Topping the list and dominating the discussion was the city's proposed penny Municipal Option Sales Tax, or MOST, which lawmakers said they won't move on until they receive a resolution from the commission asking them to call for a referendum.

Rep. Wayne Howard said if the state implements a 1-cent transportation tax, and Richmond County raises its sales tax by another penny, the local sales tax would go to 9 cents and could drive sales tax dollars to South Carolina.

Mr. Grantham, who was making the case for the tax, asked everyone in the room who goes to North Augusta to buy gasoline there to raise his hand. No one did. Then everybody started laughing.

I don't have to tell you why, do I?

WHAT HAVE WE HERE? Mr. Lockett weighed in on the tax issue with examples of how North Carolina remedied its budget deficit by raising taxes on income from $60,000 to $250,000 and temporarily raising its sales tax 1 percent and expanded it to cover software and certain online retailers.

He said there are 160 things the state of Georgia can tax but that it is taxing only about 30.

"We're on the low side," he said.

A THOUGHT FOR YOUR PENNY: Boy King Deke made a good case for having counties collect sales taxes instead of the state, but with the state strapped for cash it's not going to happen. It's like those people in hell. They want ice water, but they're not going to get it.

SOME MUST THINK IT'S NOT WHAT YOU KNOW OR WHO YOU KNOW: Reps. Quincy Murphy and Gloria Frazier asked about the status of Richmond County road projects and which projects would be funded by the city and DOT. The person answering most of the questions was Mr. Grantham, who'd just lost his seat on the Engineering Services Committee, along with Mr. Smith, the other commissioner who knows how to get things done at DOT.

And, not that it matters of course, Mr. Grantham is also a close friend of DOT Board Chairman Bill Kuhlke .

No, of course it doesn't matter. Any fool knows that.

Nevertheless, Mr. Grantham has been asked to introduce Mr. Johnson to the DOT bigwigs.

SIMPLE PRIORITIES: As far as the school system's legislative agenda, board President Marion Barnes summed it up this way: "Basically, our priorities are financial."

Superintendent Dana Bedden said they know not to ask for more money.

"Just hold the line," he said.

The school system is chafing under the state requirement that 65 percent of its funds go toward classroom instruction.

Comptroller Gene Spires said that restriction was a problem. For example, he said, "We have to do a lot of busing, and the transportation costs often exceed the amount we have budgeted, and we can't use those funds because of restrictions."

So why doesn't the school board really try to get out from under the 46-year-old federal school busing order?

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228.

From the Sunday, January 10, 2010 edition of the Augusta Chronicle
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