Insider: Is Augusta ready for a majority black commission?

Insider: Is Augusta ready for a majority black commission?

When former Augusta Commissioner Matt Aitken won the District 1 race in 2009, many local residents called Aitken’s win, “A new day in Augusta.”

Locals, both in the white and black community, were watching to see how Aitken was going to handle becoming one of six white members on the Augusta Commission.

Ever since the city and county consolidated in 1996, the commission had always been equally divided with five white commissioners and five black commissioners holding district seats.

The election of Aitken changed all that with the commission then being made up of six white commissioners and four black commissioners when he took office in 2010.

Many people in the white community wanted Aitken to stand with commissioners Don Grantham, Joe Bowles, Jerry Brigham, Joe Jackson and Jimmy Smith to form a more “conservative” commission.

But many in the black community demanded Aitken listen to the concerns of his constituents living in the Laney-Walker neighborhood and east Augusta who needed more community services.

In the end, Aitken was so wishy-washy on many of the issues facing the commission during his time in office that he didn’t make many people happy.

Even with former Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce President Ed Presnell constantly whispering in Aitken’s ear, he still didn’t get much accomplished.

By 2012, voters decided to send the incumbent packing and current Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy beat Aitken in a runoff by winning 63 percent of the vote.

With Fennoy’s win in 2012, he restored the 5-5 racial balance on the 10-member commission.

But that may all change with the upcoming runoff in the commission’s District 6 race.

On July 22, voters in District 6 will decide the winner of a runoff between Urban Pro Weekly publisher Ben Hasan, who is black, and retired Army and Fort Gordon staffer Bob Finnegan, who is white.

If Hasan wins, Augusta will have six black commissioners and four white commissioners representing the county.

The funny thing is though, you haven’t heard much about this new possible “shift” in power.

When Aitken was running, everyone in town was talking about the possibility of having six white commissioners on the board, instead of a 5-5 split.

A group of ministers, led by the Augusta Baptist Ministers Conference, was even holding press conferences about how the election of Aitken was going to disrupt the racial balance of the commission.

In 2009, Rev. Alexander Smith, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference board member, told The Augusta Chronicle that an Aitken victory might require legal action because it would be a “constitutional violation.”

The whole situation was pretty amazing.

But, this time around, the public has heard very little about the shift in power from either the white or black community.

However, who did The Augusta Chronicle endorse in the District 6 race during the May 20 election?

Bob Finnegan, of course.

“Finnegan’s life embodies what needs to happen in south Augusta to help that part of the city succeed,” the Chronicle’s May 13 endorsement stated. “ He and his wife moved to Augusta in 1979, when he still was in the U.S. Navy, and chose to live in south Augusta after correctly surmising the area’s potential.

“That commitment – investing his very life, really – spurred decades of civic and political involvement. He serves on the South Augusta Redevelopment Board and the Richmond County Personnel Board, and has served as a member of the Richmond County Human Relations Commission.”

The Chronicle said Finnegan wants the “divisions” to go away in local government.

“Finnegan grasps the basics that voters have been talking about,” the editorial stated. “They want better roads and sidewalks. They want an end to bickering on the Augusta Commission.”

Finnegan, a retiree of Fort Gordon and longtime resident of Augusta’s Alleluia Community, seems like an outstanding candidate for the commission. There is no doubt about it.

But the election of Ben Hasan would definitely shake things up. And not in a bad way.

Hasan is committed to Augusta and is constantly questioning, “Why are we so divided as a community?”

Since 2006, he has attended about 85 percent of the Augusta Commission’s meetings and he knows the problems facing the commission.

“The commission experience has been frustrating, entertaining and rewarding,” Hasan stated in his campaign literature. “I believe that trust must begin with the mayor and the commissioners; they are the face of our city.”

Is Augusta ready for the face of the city to change to a majority black commission?

The Garden City will find out after the July 22 runoff.

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