Captain Controversy

Is Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams a loose cannon destroying Augusta’s image or a capeless crusader defending citizens without a voice?

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Captain Controversy

He’s been called every name in the book.

But he still refuses to back down.

In fact, for Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams, such criticism flames the fire inside him to push even harder for what he considers “the truth” within city government.

“When people start criticizing me and they try to keep me quiet, it just proves that people want to continue to do the same things they have been doing for 200 years,” Williams said, sitting in the James Brown Plaza on Broad Street. “They don’t want to change. They want you to be quiet and they want you to sit back and let them do what they want to do. And you ain’t supposed to address it, but that’s not me.”

Williams, 65, is the pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, a retired employee of CSX Railroad, a father of three children and the first black firefighter for the city’s fire department back in 1968.

As the Super District 9 commissioner representing half of Augusta-Richmond County, and having served two previous terms as the District 2 commissioner, Williams insists that he doesn’t “stir the pot” to simply grab headlines and ruffle the feathers of his colleagues.

Everything he does has a meaning and a purpose, Williams said.

“You may not agree with me, but you always know where I stand,” he said. “Some people say a lot of words, but nothing comes out. I know some people who can talk for 20 minutes, but you’ll get up and think, ‘Now, what did he say?’ The truth is, he really didn’t say anything. I’ll never be one of those people.”

Just this past week, Williams found himself in hot water after it was discovered that he owed more than $3,500 in overdue taxes on properties in Richmond County.

Many of his critics pounced on the fact that, while Williams hadn’t paid his taxes, he was still pressing to implement a policy that would require future city employees to live in Augusta-Richmond County because “too much of taxpayers’ money was leaving Augusta” and going to neighboring counties where about 30 percent of city employees reside.

“Hypocrite” was the word most often used last week to describe Williams, but he says such names don’t bother him at all.

“That just means I have to dot every I and cross every T,” he said. “I always try to do that and I have no problem with the taxes that I owe. I have made arrangements with the tax commissioner to get that squared up and pay the penalty charges. And, I admit, I probably should have done it before. But still, that is not going to stop me from doing the job I’m elected to do. No way. No how.”

Williams believes it is extremely important for future employees, particularly department directors, to take pride in Augusta-Richmond County and want to live in the county they serve.

“I’m glad I brought it up,” Williams said. “And I’ll tell you the truth, it all started out with one of the employees, a department director, going around talking and bragging that he didn’t live in Richmond County and how Richmond County was bad and that’s why he stayed in a neighboring county.”

When Williams heard the comments from this particular department head, his blood began to boil.

“It really bothered me, so I wanted to know how many other people did that,” he said. “And what we found out was a huge amount of money is going out of Augusta-Richmond County. And that’s a shame. Now, I’m not talking about making people come back into the city who are already working here. But when people are moving to this area, there should be some point system or something that employees get for living inside the city limits.”

Currently, approximately 32 percent of all city employees live outside of Augusta-Richmond County including five department directors, as well as Interim City Administrator Tameka Allen.

“We’ve got five or six department heads that are taking $600,000 a year outside this county,” Williams said. “I think we need to talk about that, especially now that we are preparing to hire a new administrator.”

Williams insists that the new administrator should be required to live in Augusta-Richmond County.

“Whoever comes in here needs to know we have some great homes and great people in Richmond County,” Williams said. “Some people believe, ‘Oh, if you live in Augusta-Richmond County, then it is bad.’ Well, if it is that bad, then don’t work here. It’s just as simple as that.”

However, Augusta’s General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie recently told commissioners there is a Georgia law that restricts residency requirements for government employees.

MacKenzie explained that the commission could not tell prospective employees that they would not get a job with the city if they did not live in Richmond County unless there was a “compelling governmental reason” for such a requirement.

Williams says that is “hogwash.”

“There is a way. If you have a smart attorney, they can word stuff in a way to make that happen,” Williams said. “If you are not a smart attorney, you don’t know how to do that, so you’ll throw up your hands and say, ‘Oh, no. We can’t do it.’ And walk away.

“Let me tell you this, if you ever hire a lawyer yourself, and he says, ‘Oh, we can’t do that.’ Then, he ain’t too good. Don’t pay him any money and you walk away.”

During the past several weeks, Williams has also been extremely vocal about his displeasure with the city’s law department, specifically MacKenzie.

“He is like a lost student who comes out law school and just got his first assignment,” Williams said of MacKenzie. “He is making some rookie mistakes, I think.”

Two weeks ago, Williams announced that he wanted the commission to consider a vote of “no confidence” in the city’s law department.

Williams believes contracts and land purchases that the county has entered into haven’t been reviewed as well as they should have been in the past several years.

For example, commissioners voted last week to delay the construction of the city’s new $9.4 million transit operation and maintenance facility on Highway 56 because of possible contamination on the proposed site.

Augusta Solid Waste Director Mark Johnson told commissioners it was discovered during one of the environmental evaluations that the property did have some trash buried underground, including tires, paper and some metals.

Johnson said organic matter was also located on the site, which could result in the production of methane.

There was also a portion of the land that was in the floodplain, Johnson said.

“The attorneys are supposed to do their work. They need to do a title search and soil testing. All the things you need to do before you buy a piece of property,” Williams said. “But, now that we are ready to build, it comes out that it is contaminated and on a floodplain. How can you let us buy something that was supposed to be checked out?”

Despite being heavily criticized by Williams on a regular basis, MacKenzie, to his credit, has remained calm and respectful during public meetings.

But several commissioners have demanded that Williams stop berating MacKenzie in public and only discuss his displeasure with the attorney in legal meetings, behind closed doors.

“I don’t believe in going in the back room to discuss things,” Williams said. “Now, I don’t want to do something that would cost the city more money by using somebody’s name in public while discussing a personnel issue, but I don’t trust the attorney’s rulings now. And I don’t know how we are ever going to handle these personnel matters if we are going to only talk about all this stuff in the legal meetings.”

For the past several weeks, the legal meetings have lasted more than two hours and the public has been kept waiting outside for the regular meetings to begin.

A number of his colleagues have blamed Williams for holding up the regular meetings with lengthy discussions in the back room, but Williams says commissioners can’t have it both ways.

“I’m elected by the people. The commission can’t stop me from talking,” he said. “And, if you are not going to talk about these issues on floor and they don’t want to discuss them in the back room, we have to talk about it somewhere. If they want to do this, I can do it the hard way. I can pull everything off the committee agendas and talk about it on the floor during the regular commission meetings. It doesn’t matter to me. But we are going to talk about it.”

Some citizens have also criticized Williams for openly discussing sensitive matters facing Augusta, claiming that the commissioner is making the entire city look bad. Many of his critics insist that the Augusta Commission should operate more respectfully, like the Columbia County Board of Commissioners.

Williams insists any comparison between Columbia County and Augusta-Richmond County is ridiculous.

“I had a white elected official in a meeting with me, he was elected in North Augusta,” Williams said, adding that he would not specifically name the individual. “But he said, ‘Everybody in Columbia County goes to the same church. Everybody in Columbia County likes the same kinds of foods. Everybody in Columbia County drives the same kinds of cars.’ I just looked at him laughing and said, ‘Where did you come from?’”

Williams told the man he had been trying to explain the same thing to people for years.

“You can’t compare Columbia County to Richmond County. It is like night and day. It is totally different,” Williams said, adding that Augusta has a downtown, an inner city, a rural country, an older community, wealthy neighborhoods and public housing. “People who don’t see that either don’t want to see it or don’t want you to see it.”

The last thing Augustans should be afraid of is the truth, Williams said.

That is one of the main reasons that Williams recently demanded to have a copy of former City Administrator Fred Russell’s hard drive.

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.

Williams said that every elected official should want to review the former city administrator’s hard drive considering he had served in that position for almost a decade before being fired last month.

“There ought to be internal audit done on every department right now,” Williams said. “We need to know that we are starting off with a clean slate when we hire a new professional city administrator. I don’t want any surprises.”

Especially now that there are rumors that Russell is considering a run for mayor, Williams believes it is important to see the former administrator’s interactions with the community.

“I wanted to see the hard drive before I heard he was going to run for mayor. I really want to see it now,” Williams said. “I need to know what connections he has got or what areas he has been in and who he has made alliances with. If he gets to be the mayor and he has made alliances with the wrong circles, he could put this city in a lot of jeopardy.”

“We know that there is a lot of e-mails and a lot of stuff that has transpired for the past several years,” Williams added. “And it ain’t all going to be pretty, I can tell you that.”

As for Williams, he is not shy about the fact that he is supporting Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason for mayor this year.

“I’m supporting Alvin Mason myself. That’s my man. If he can’t do it, nobody can,” Williams said, smiling. “I think Mason has a vision. He’s open-minded. And while we don’t always agree, I think he’s the right man for the job.”

But Williams admits that he was shocked when he heard the news that Russell was considering a run for the mayor’s seat. He was even more surprised when he learned that some of the Augusta commissioners, including a few of his colleagues who voted to fire Russell just last month, were supporting his run for mayor.

“I was really was kind of stunned because I wouldn’t think Mr. Russell would have tried that. But I know the folks who are trying to get him to run,” Williams said. “There are some people who want to run the city of Augusta and they want somebody that they can kind of tell what to do and what not to do. But I really can’t see how anybody can endorse somebody who they voted to fire just a few weeks ago. That don’t make good sense to me.”

The fact that seven commissioners unanimously voted to fire Russell as city administrator should say a lot, Williams said.

“I think Mr. Russell has two chances for the mayor’s seat: Slim and none,” Williams said, laughing. “It is surprising to me that he could think that he would be a viable candidate for mayor, but I heard that Fred has been saying that he has some support in the black community. I’m sure he has some. I don’t think he has the support he thinks he has, by no stretch of the imagination, but I think the mayor’s election will prove that.”

In fact, Williams said he has heard rumors that Russell has told people that he has the support of the United House of Prayer.

“Now, I heard that Fred went to the United House of Prayer and the pastor said some encouraging words,” Williams said. “But it was the pastor. Not the bishop. There is a big difference in the pastor and the bishop. I know the bishop personally. Bishop C.M. Bailey is my friend and the bishop hasn’t endorsed Fred.”

Therefore, Williams suggested that Russell should be more careful in his claims of endorsements.

“Now, I think Fred took those kind words from the pastor and ran with it and said he has the support of United House of Prayer,” Williams said. “That tells you right there he is starting off wrong because that is misleading. If you get a trick, you better get a new trick because we’ve all seen that one before.”

No matter who wins this year’s mayoral election, Williams said it won’t change his role as a commissioner.

“If we look at the history, Augusta has only had one black man as mayor and that was Ed McIntyre,” Williams said. “Of course, Willie Mays was interim mayor at one point, but we only elected one black mayor. But, for me, I don’t want a black mayor. I don’t want a white mayor. I want a mayor who does what is right.”

Augusta desperately needs a mayor who will help this city to continue to grow and prosper, Williams said.

“I want a mayor to propose ideas and bring them to the commission. I want a mayor who has the power to move those ideas forward,” Williams said. “I want a mayor who only sees green. Green will move this city forward. That’s the only color that I care about.”