Dear Mr. Mayor:
Rough week, huh? You found out the hard way that no matter what “deals or arrangements” you have with your fellow elected officials, if you don’t have those discussions in the light of day, and hopefully in front of lots of witnesses (and reporters), you might as well not bother having them.
Let me cut to the chase and explain why you seem to be catching Hell from everyone over your incredibly bold scheme to grab power, streamline government, cut red tape and cure the common cold.
You want to fix Augusta’s hideously backwards system of government, I get that. Most sensible people agree it needs to go. But before you light the fuse that attempts to blow it up, take a moment and remind your constituents how we got here. Explain the bizarre and nonsense-laden plan that was and is the “pig we all lined up to kiss” and have sadly been married to for the last two decades.
I was there. The Reader’s Digest version of the story is that the State Senator Charles Walker and other minority leaders (specifically a group of local black ministers) were using the Bill Clinton Justice Department to keep the legally and enthusiastically voter approved Augusta/Richmond County Consolidation Bill from becoming law. Walker finally realized that the “original” City of Augusta was about 15 minutes away from going into receivership, essentially meaning the small city that was about to have a likely black majority city council and a likely black mayor would be very likely flat broke.
Being no fool, Walker knew something had to give. Consolidation was in fact the only answer, and the white power structure that was trying to keep the national media from running the headline “AUGUSTA IS BANKRUPT” had their backs against the wall.
With the pending financial crisis as his primary weapon and inspiration, Walker was able to write his own plan, with Republican State Representative Robin Williams signing off on it, as well as the tacit approval of every major player in the CSRA.
That would be “almost” every elected and appointed official of note, and the editorial boards of the Augusta Chronicle, The Augusta Focus and the Metro Spirit. More importantly, the Augusta Chamber of Commerce used their full force and political weight to get the deal done; it was the most important and specific mission in the history of the organization, or so they said. There are lots more to list, but you get the point.
The plan gave black citizens more elected representation than their population would dictate. At that time, whites comprised over 60 percent of Richmond County. The plan (as we well know now) called for a 50-50 racial split of elected commissioners, to be accomplished by gerrymandering the districts to reflect the total. The mayor’s role was also rendered essentially impotent in the plan, yet another move to ensure black officials had to be involved in order to get enough votes (six) to get business done.
The plan stunk to high heaven, and we all went along with it, almost every one of us. And we did it to save the name and reputation of the City of Augusta. I still believe to this day that at the time, it was the right thing to do.
(Siebar: There was one really loud guy who screamed constantly and told us we were crazy — Bernie Starseski, God bless you wherever you are! — and former Commissioner Jerry Brigham reminds me that his fellow Commissioners Willie Mays and Moses Todd weren’t fond of the notion. I seem to recall they warmed to the concept eventually.)
It was the hope that the greater mission of city survival and economic recovery/business recruitment would trump the petty race and political skirmishes that seemed to rule the past, but alas, those Days of Detente never seemed to come. Augusta has spent the last 20 years fighting the same fights and tolerating the same bureaucratic mediocrity that has made our urban center largely dysfunctional and intellectually indefensible in so many ways. Sadly, it was the government plan built on the concept of “gridlock” that allowed all that to happen.
Mayor Davis, you spent several years in the state legislature, and while there you had the perfect chair from which to design and ultimately implement the great political fix that Augusta today screams for and deserves. But we heard nothing from you in that regard. I do blame former Mayor Copenhaver and past city commissions for not forcing your hand on that one, but since as a state senator you held the same position Charles Walker did when he designed and signed off on the original plan, obviously you did not have to have their approval. Had you brought a good city charter revamp plan to the people of Augusta, they would have forced their city officials to accept it.
Back then. You know, before you became, as Augusta’s new mayor, the No. 1 beneficiary of the new plan.
That you didn’t see the response of the city commissioners, legislative delegation, media and citizenry coming is a tad bit scary. But on that, I will give you the benefit of the doubt. Rookie mistake.
Former Mayor Deke Copenhaver spent years “tone deaf” on the concept of a new stadium downtown; please don’t go down that road on this charter revamp.
At your next commission meeting, take a few minutes and apologize for your over eager and ham-handed attempt to correct mistakes that have been decades in the making. Your heart was in the right place. Propose the changes be discussed and, if approved, implemented after the next mayoral election. It has taken the city 20 years to understand the depth of the poop pool that the original consolidation plan was, and while it has been the intention of many to correct the mistakes before now, with a majority black commission in place and a black mayor elected with 75 percent of the vote, the time for change is now.
But quit attempting to do it alone. That won’t fly. Conduct hearings every month for the next year on what needs to change and how to change it. Get input from everyone, take the best ideas, and build a new charter.
Oh, and one more thing my friend, and I mean this with all due respect and affection:
Get over your damn self.
If United States congressmen and senators can move among members of the local media without their assistants shoving papers in the faces of cameramen and reporters, you sure can. I have known every mayor personally, and covered them professionally, back to Charles DeVaney, and none of them needed security details, entourages or “handlers.”
You are better than this Mr. Mayor. Regroup, recover and get on with it.