The Augusta Commission rang in the New Year like only the Augusta Commission can with bickering, finger pointing and the slamming of a gavel.
If the commission’s first meeting of 2014 is any indication of the year to come, Augustans better brace themselves.
The meeting began on a positive note with the Augusta Commission unanimously voting to appoint Deputy City Administrator Tameka Allen as the interim administrator.
The commission also agreed to begin a search for candidates to fill the interim positions of deputy administrator and information technology. Allen, who was initially hired as the IT director, has held both positions since 2004.
But as soon as the commission voted to move forward with these new positions, Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams opened a door to the past.
“I would like a copy of the previous administrator’s hard drive,” Williams told his colleagues.
Many of his fellow commissioners looked bewildered by Williams’ request.
Back in 2007, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office looked into accusations that Williams had taken a copy of then-City Administrator Fred Russell’s computer hard drive.
But after looking into the allegations, the sheriff’s office determined that Russell’s computer had not been compromised.
As the evening progressed, Williams proved that he was full of surprises that seemed to stretch the patience of his fellow commissioners.
During one discussion, Williams was shocked to learn that a handful of department directors who lived outside of Richmond County resulted in more than $500,000 in salaries leaving the Garden City.
“I’ve been told we can’t specify that people stay in Richmond County,” Williams said. “Well, I disagree with that.”
He said if a county ordinance can state that someone can’t run for public office unless they live in Richmond County then the same could be demanded of a department director.
“If you are going to get your bread and butter, you ought to eat it at this table,” Williams said. “Don’t take it to someone else’s table.”
He asked the interim administrator to provide him with the total number of employees, not just department directors, who live outside of Richmond County, as well as their salaries so he could see how much money was leaving the county each year.
“I’m not saying that anybody has to move back in. I’m not saying that,” Williams insisted. “But we have to stop this madness.”
Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson said that Williams’ request was unnecessary and could possible lead to a potential lawsuit.
“In my opinion, that is just too farfetched,” Johnson said. “I think we are toeing a very fine line here to ask for all the employees of Richmond County to show where they live and how much money they are being paid.”
“Me, personally, I can’t support that because I just don’t see what real sense it makes when you talk about the average employee,” he added.
Williams clearly did not appreciate Johnson’s tone in addressing his request.
“I have the right to know how much money is going out of this county into another county or anywhere else,” Williams insisted. “There is no hidden agenda. There is nothing to make people move. I want to know how much money that we are sending out to another county that ain’t paying taxes in this county. I don’t care whether he likes it, understands it, or appreciates it.”
Johnson immediately snapped back, “Mr. Mayor, excuse me Mr. Mayor, you don’t have to like it.”
Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver quickly attempted to calm the discussion by asking both commissioners to refrain from addressing one another directly.
“Hey, y’all, come on,” Copenhaver said. “Come on, Mr. Mayor Pro Tem.”
But Johnson couldn’t help but express his disbelief regarding the information that Williams was requesting.
“Do you understand what it does to the morale of the employees by requesting this type of information publicly?” Johnson asked Williams. “Be cognizant of the employees.”
That made Williams even more furious with Johnson.
“If the employees don’t want to work here, Mr. Mayor, they don’t have to work here,” Williams said, raising his voice. “That’s all I can say. They can get another job.”
Copenhaver slammed down the gavel, immediately calling for the two commissioners to stop bickering.
“I have had enough of y’all going back and forth,” Copenhaver said. “Come on.”
Augusta’s General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie told commissioners there is a Georgia law that restricts residency requirements for government employees.
“You can’t hire a person and say, ‘You are only going to get this job if you live in this jurisdiction,’ unless there is a compelling governmental reason to support the government’s reason to have them there,” MacKenzie said.
For example, a law enforcement agency could require a deputy in some cases to live within the jurisdiction to ensure faster response times. But the reason for such residency restrictions was extremely limited, he said.
Augusta Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said he couldn’t understand why Williams was wanting the residency information about all employees.
“I don’t know why we are chasing this rabbit,” he said. “What good is the information going to be once we receive it? We can’t change the outcome. So, why do we waste the government’s time and money?”
The commission voted 7-0 to accept Williams’ request as simply information. However, before the board moved onto the next item, Williams asked for the residency issue to be placed on the commission’s next full agenda.
“We are going to talk about this again,” he said.
Just when some commissioners thought Williams was done for the evening, he announced that he wanted the commission to consider a vote of “no confidence” in the city’s law department.
“One of the departments have not lived up to the job that they should have done,” Williams told the commission.
Copenhaver told Williams that if he wanted to discuss a personnel matter, the board would have to go into a legal meeting behind closed doors.
“We definitely need to talk about it,” Williams said. “However you want to do it. I’m leaving it up to you.”
Copenhaver fired back, “You can say whatever you would like to say and if people want to respond and they want to discuss it, I will leave that up to you.”
Before the discussion got any further, Guilfoyle asked his colleagues to support a motion asking the human resources director to include an amendment to the county’s policy and procedures manual that would require personnel issues to be discussed in a closed-door meeting.
“This is not a personnel issue. This is a department issue,” Williams insisted. “No one commissioner can tell another commissioner what he can and what he can’t put on the agenda.”
But Guilfoyle insisted that the motion should be supported by the commission.
“Personnel should be handled in legal,” he said. “In privacy, outside of the media, to where we do not affect the family and friends of the person being questioned.”
The majority of the commission agreed with Guilfoyle with a vote of 6-2. Commissioners Alvin Mason and Williams voted against the motion, while Donnie and Grady Smith were absent for the vote.
Williams continued to insist that he had ever right to discuss the matter.
“I can’t limit him,” Williams said of Guilfoyle, “and he certainly can’t limit me on what I can put on this agenda.”