While a lot of attention is being paid to the end of Mayor Deke Copenhaver’s tenure, there are two other lame ducks in the Marble Palace that have definitely left their mark on the Garden City.
Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason and Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson will have completed their terms at the end of this year, and what a long road they have traveled.
Mason, of course, failed to extend his leadership in Augusta with his unsuccessful bid for mayor, but in his seven years as commissioner, he proved he was never afraid to ask the hard questions.
He always joked that his job was to “get the devil out of the details,” when it came to taxpayer-funded projects. And Mason always kept that promise when reviewing city contracts dealing with anything from the development of the Augusta Judicial Center to the construction of the Augusta Convention Center and the city’s parking deck on Reynolds Street.
Over the years, Mason debated everyone from former City Administrator Fred Russell over budget matters to Paul Simon, president of Augusta Riverfront LLC, regarding the convention center.
Mason was bold, direct and proud of the fact that he didn’t mind ruffling people’s feathers.
“I’m not for special interest groups,” Mason would say. “And I also do not believe in what I consider corporate welfare, which is giving millionaires, multi-millionaires or billionaires, millions of government dollars and paying for the operation and maintenance of their operations at the expense of taxpaying citizens.”
Why was Mason always so direct? Because he believed that was “good government.”
On the other end of the commission chamber sits Corey Johnson.
While Mason is often loud, Johnson’s approach is much more quiet.
Often described as “Mr. Nice Guy” on the commission, he is known for building bridges with his colleagues.
The two lame-duck commissioners could not be more different, but both proved about four years ago that they were honest elected politicians who were not looking to profit from their positions.
In 2010, retired Augusta attorney David Fry was charged with two counts of bribery after being accused of offering Johnson and Mason a bribe involving the operations of the proposed parking deck that would be built next to the Augusta Convention Center on Reynolds Street.
Fry allegedly proposed to the commissioners a partnership in a parking business that could deliver both Mason and Johnson about $200,000 per year if they would consider changing their initial vote and supporting the construction of the $38 million convention center.
Instead of taking the bribe, Mason and Johnson contacted a local attorney and they went straight to the sheriff’s office to report the incident.
Both commissioners insisted it was the right thing to do.
“It was something that unfortunately happened,” Johnson told the Metro Spirit in 2010, adding that the two commissioners did not know what to think after Fry approached them. “We saw a situation that didn’t look right and, of course, when you are the midst of it, you don’t know what it is. Clearly, you assume this could be a bribe.
“There wasn’t any money that was put on the table. But it was presented as, ‘If you do this, this is what you can do.’ And I knew that didn’t sound right. It didn’t sound legal.”
By reporting the incident to the sheriff, Johnson said he and Mason were viewed very differently by the public.
“For a lot of people, that was a heroic move,” he told the Metro Spirit. “It showed a lot about our character, our integrity as leaders and that we are not going to operate like that.”
It was a turning point for both commissioners, he said.
“People were really, really excited to know that they had good, young leadership that cannot be bought or persuaded to be a part of things that are considered backdoor politics,” Johnson said, explaining that the bribery scandal caused many Augustans to recall the arrest of former Augusta Mayor Ed McIntyre.
In 1984, McIntyre was convicted of bribery and extortion while serving as mayor of Augusta.
“It was clearly different for us,” Johnson said. “Ed McIntyre had an envelope with the money in it. He was taking it somewhere and he was caught and questioned about it and he was in possession of the money.”
But that bribery charge rocked the city, Johnson said.
“I was a young guy at the time. I knew that it happened. I knew Mayor McIntyre went to jail,” he said. “But he served his time and got out and tried to make it right. He died trying to make it right.”
When Johnson was approached with what he considered a bribe, he wanted to make sure the people knew that he was not trying to fill his own pockets.
“You can’t tell me something is unethical but it is not illegal,” Johnson told the Metro Spirit, laughing. “If it’s not ethical, nine times out of 10 it’s illegal.”
Hats off to two Augusta commissioners who can walk out of the Marble Palace at the end of this month with their heads held high.
Well done, gentlemen.