With Augustans preparing to select a new mayor next year, one debate that has already begun to rear its ugly head is the discussion over the mayor’s limited powers.
Those candidates who have announced their intentions to run for the city’s top seat — including Augusta commissioners Alvin Mason and Joe Jackson, state Sen. Hardie Davis, former mayoral candidate Helen Blocker-Adams and local businessman Charles Cummings — better brush up on their opinions regarding the matter because it’s typically the local media’s first question.
Why? Because this particular debate has hung over Augusta’s head since the city and county consolidation back in 1996.
In the late 1990s, under the newly formed consolidated government, then-Augusta Mayor Larry Sconyers was bold enough to be the first to lay it on the line by clearly suggesting that the mayor’s position needed more authority.
That request quickly became a major sticking point in the 1998 mayor’s race.
Bob Young, the former Channel 6 evening news anchor who ran against Sconyers in 1998, said it was ridiculous for Sconyers to request the local legislative delegation to allow the mayor to gain either veto power or have a vote in the commission.
“I think there is plenty of power in the mayor’s office right now,” a very naive Young told the <<it>>Metro Spirit<<it>> in 1998. “We just need someone in there that will use it.”
Young pointed out that the consolidation bill stated the mayor is the chief executive officer of Augusta-Richmond County. He compared those executive powers to those of the governor of Georgia and the president of the United States.
“Many of the things that I want to get done can be accomplished without a vote,” Young added. “Anybody who says the mayor is powerless is fooling himself.”
He blamed the city’s failures on the lack of leadership from Sconyers.
“The mayor has no ideas. The mayor has no plans,” he said. “The mayor has no programs for economic development.”
Young’s campaign for mayor even turned a little ugly when his ads portrayed Sconyers literally asleep at the wheel.
“I’m ready to take the initiative,” Young announced in 1998. “I don’t think I will find one boring day in a four-year term as the mayor of Augusta. Certainly, not boring enough that I would fall asleep.”
Voters believed Young and pounced on his enthusiasm. They thought he could control a divided commission, not by changing the city charter and giving the mayor more authority, but by using his powers of leadership.
Young went into office saying he was going to become a full-time mayor and take advantage of the powers of the mayoral office.
But, less than two years later, Young was singing an entirely different tune.
“What a veto does is to give you a bargaining tool to leverage,” Young told local reporters. “Each one of the commissioners has one vote. He has something he can horse trade. The mayor has nothing to horse trade with.”
Even Augusta’s current mayor, Deke Copenhaver, toyed with the notion of more power for a little while.
In 2011, Copenhaver asked the Augusta Commission to vote on whether it supported a ruling by the Office of the Legislative Counsel, which said the mayor — as the chief executive officer of Augusta — had the power to hire and fire city employees.
“The CEO, by implication, must be able to hire and fire non-performers,” Deputy Legislative Counsel Rick Ruskell stated in his 2011 opinion. “The CEO must have the exclusive power to supervise, direct, and control the administration of county government. In my opinion, the hiring and firing of county employees is an executive duty that cannot be delegated to a county administrator without amending the provisions of the consolidated government charter.”
Ruskell threw everyone for a loop with that one. But the debate over the mayor’s power again sort of faded away, leaving Copenhaver (like all the mayors before him since the two governments consolidated) nothing more than a figurehead.
The mayor basically presides over all the Augusta Commission meetings; serves as the official head of Richmond County for ceremonial purposes; administers oaths; signs all written contracts entered into by the commission on behalf of Augusta-Richmond County; helps appoint committees; and can vote to break a tie on the commission.
That’s about it, folks.
Not the most glamorous job in the world, so it will be interesting to see which of the mayoral candidates will be pushing for a little more power come 2014.