City Clerk Lena Bonner proved this week that you shouldn’t try to fudge the truth about history when you are dealing with an office that specializes in record keeping.
For the past few weeks, Bonner and the Augusta Commission have questioned several design changes that were made to the $40 million renovation project of the Municipal Building on Greene Street.
Specifically, what exactly happened to all the space that was scheduled to be allocated for the clerk of commission and her staff.
Last week, Forrest White, a senior associate for Heery International — the firm overseeing the Marble Palace’s renovations — told commissioners that the only concern he had heard about was regarding “the size of the clerk of commission’s office.”
White said he was unaware of any additional concerns facing the clerk’s office, such as the total lack of storage space for public records.
When White made that public statement last week, Bonner decided to call his bluff.
Bonner presented Augusta commissioners with a document dated Dec. 5, 2012, that clearly showed he was aware of the lack storage space for the clerk’s office.
“The clerk needs vault space, similar to what is currently on the ninth floor,” Bonner read from the 2012 letter, adding that the document also stated that, at a minimum, the same size vault that the clerk previously had in her former office was needed on the second floor near her new offices.
“Make room for vault on the second floor,” Bonner read to the commission from the letter. “This was dated Dec. 5, 2012. These are their records… But according to Mr. White, the concerns were never made known to them.”
Bonner said she found the entire situation “very disconcerting.”
When the Municipal Building was constructed in the 1950s, Bonner explained that the city clerk at the time made sure that there were office vaults located on the eighth and ninth floor for the storage and custody of records.
When plans for the Municipal Building’s renovations began in 2008, Bonner insisted there needed to be a similar vault located on the second floor where her offices were going to be relocated.
“Those records are historical,” Bonner said. “We have records dating back to the 1700s. When the city of Augusta gave up its charter when we consolidated, Augusta was over 200 years old. We have those records here. They belong to the citizens of this community.”
But Bonner said the architects were “very dismissive” of her request; however, former City Administrator Fred Russell assured her that the space would be allocated for her needs.
It wasn’t until she had a meeting with Mayor Deke Copenhaver and Heery International in December 2012 that she realized her office’s needs had been “dismissed, discounted and apparently ignored.”
“Not only did they not reallocate the space for the records, they did not reallocate space for the clerk,” Bonner said. “And I asked them, ‘Well, where do I fit in? Is my office going to be on the roof? Am I on the sidewalk? Where?’ They had no answer for me.”
To make matters worse, Bonner said she was appalled when Heery International suggested that the city records be stored on seventh floor, while her offices would remain on the second floor.
“Where is the efficiency in that?” Bonner asked. “That I’m having to access records that I need on a daily basis five floors from me.”
Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams demanded to know who was responsible for the poor planning of the building.
“I want to know who designed this floor and who set this up?” he asked. “Who was the one who signed off? And I don’t want to hear about Mr. Russell. Mr. Russell is gone. Fred is dead. You can’t talk to a dead man.”
Interim Administrator Tameka Allen said that the architect on the project was Virgo Gambill Architects.
“Well, I can’t build a dog house, but I could design a lot better than what I see here,” Williams. “But who signed off on it?”
Allen hesitated, but simply said, “I hate to resurrect anybody, but unfortunately, it was the previous administrator.”
Williams said the commission should be ashamed of the space that was allocated to the clerk’s office.
“Everything comes through the clerk’s office,” Williams said. “Not the administrator’s office. Not even the mayor’s office, and he’s got a great set up.”
Anyone walking off the street can look at the plans for the Municipal Building and realize that the clerk of commission doesn’t have enough space, he said.
“Whoever did this, don’t ask me for a vote to go to the bathroom because you can’t get it,” Williams said, clearly angry. “Nothing. I’m serious.”
Augusta Commissioner Joe Jackson agreed that there were significant problems with the design of the building.
“I don’t think we should pay, as taxpayers, any more money to do any more changing of what needs to happen,” Jackson said. “I think it’s up to the architect and Heery to figure that out and move forward at no cost to the taxpayers.”
“I mean, there is one bathroom back here for commissioners. It is not even stocked. No dividers,” Jackson added. “Here we are moving in and we have to go to the fourth floor to get water.”
The entire situation is ridiculous, Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason said.
“There are 10 commissioners, one is a female, and we’ve got one bathroom back here and no divider,” Mason said. “But I go into the law office and I see two almost private looking bathrooms that you might want to sit down and be in there for a while. I mean, I don’t get this.”
Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith looked directly at representatives from Virgo Gambill and admonished them for their work on the Municipal Building.
“There is a certain group of people that I think are responsible for that,” he said. “I can remember Virgo Gambill coming in here and asking for money from us and I certainly remember that I was unhappy with their performance then and I’m unhappy with it now. I voted against it then, and they are the only people in this room that are responsible for what we’ve got today. And gentlemen, I’m just as disappointed today as I was the first time I met y’all.”
Commissioners agreed to halt all new construction on the Municipal Building, and only allow the continued demolition of the eighth and ninth floor, until the space allocation for the clerk’s office is resolved.