After a week filled with neighbor helping neighbor to get through the aftermath of this city’s devastating ice storm, it appears some of that goodwill has rubbed off on the Augusta Commission.
For the past five years, commissioners have debated the results of a $580,000 study of race and gender disparities that was released back in 2009.
This disparity study discovered that, while 35 percent of the Augusta market was made up of women- and minority-owned businesses, these businesses received less than 7 percent of the government contracts.
However, since those results were announced, the study has been basically sitting on a shelf collecting dust.
A few months ago, the commission asked General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Director Yvonne Gentry to meet with Colette Holt, a nationally recognized expert in designing and implementing legally defensible affirmative action programs.
The purpose was to ask Holt, who was one of the experts that helped develop the city’s disparity study, to point the city in the right direction as to how to correct any discrimination against minority and women-owned businesses.
Gentry told the commissioners this week that Holt suggested that Augusta conduct a new disparity study, which could potentially cost the city another $600,000.
“She said if we can’t procure it right now, it should be done in the next year or two,” Gentry said, explaining the data in the 2009 study was now dated.
Colt also suggested that city purchase a software program that would allow for real-time data collection. The estimated cost of the software was between $30,000 to $40,000.
Finally, she advised that Augusta should draft a minority program that would address the disparity issues identified in the 2009 study.
In order to move forward with new study and software, Gentry asked that Interim City Administrator Tameka Allen be instructed to find a funding source for both expenses.
Augusta Commissioner Grady Smith appeared to be suffering from sticker shock after Gentry’s presentation.
“We are constantly talking about having a (budgetary) shortfall,” Smith said. “I was just thinking, especially where we have been in the last week around this city and county, we should, I think, be looking at prioritizing where we need to be spend our emergency funds.”
As soon as Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams heard the tone of Smith’s voice, he began to scold his colleagues for dragging their feet on the matter.
“I am not surprised as to how this snowball is starting to roll or this ice is starting to melt,” Williams said. “This is just another way to deny and to delay. We did a study that we spent money on that came back and said that Augusta, Ga. was discriminating against women and minorities.”
The study has been released for more than five years, Williams told his colleagues.
“We keep talking about how we want to move forward and we want to take care of the community around us, but we are discriminating,” Williams said. “Something is wrong when we sit here and act like we don’t see what the problem is.”
The money is simply an excuse, Williams said.
“The funding source can be found,” Williams said, vowing that he would continue to add the item on the agenda every week as long as he was breathing. “This don’t make good sense for folks to act like we are all together, everybody is singing, ‘Kumbaya’ and everybody is getting along fine.
“This is a serious issue, Mr. Mayor, and I’m ashamed to be a part of this government who stood up here and had to do a study to prove that we are discriminating against women and minorities. It’s time to do what is right.”
Augusta Commissioner Bill Lockett agreed with Williams, saying that discussion on the matter has gone on too long.
“We get the same end result, ‘We don’t have the money,’” Lockett said. “But, doggone it, we better get the money because I’m not proud to sit up here and represent a city that has been quoted as discriminating against others. We are in 2014 now. The 60s are long gone.”
Augusta needs to clear its name and set the record straight that the city is not discriminating against women and minorities, Lockett said.
“We need to get this done and if we have to go out and sell aluminum cans to get the money, we need to do it,” Lockett said.
Augusta Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said he has to be concerned about every cent that the city spends.
“The only reason why I question the money issue is because I’m fiscally responsible,” Guilfoyle said. “I have to look out for the taxpayers in this community. I don’t represent one group… I represent all the people regardless of color, age, sex or religion.”
Smith agreed, saying that his concern is the price of the study compared to other needs in the county.
“In business, one of the first things you always ask is, where the money is coming from?” Smith said. “If that’s a bad question, then we are headed down the wrong road.”
Smith was also disappointed that some of his colleagues were implying that he was all right with women and minorities being discriminated against.
“This colleague sitting right here, she is one of the most capable ladies I know,” Smith said, pointing to Augusta Commissioner Mary Davis. “So don’t put that boogie-woogie on me.”
Lockett immediately disagreed with Smith.
“You know, it’s kind of ironic, but you people, you are so conservative, but when it came to the TEE Center, you had no problem,” Lockett said. “When it came to the parking deck, you had no problem. When it came to the convention center, you had no problem.”
Several white commissioners began whispering, “Who is ‘you people’?”
Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver immediately corrected the commissioners’ tone. “Come on, now,” Copenhaver said. “Everybody, look at how our city just came through this past week and we are sitting here going back and forth.”
Prior to the vote to consider Gentry’s request, Williams warned his colleagues that he was keeping an eye on them.
“It is really serious that people talk one thing and they do something else,” Williams said, adding that it is ridiculous the city has a study indicating women and minorities are being discriminated against, but nothing is being done about it.
“We don’t want to fix that?” Williams asked. “We don’t want to stop that? Because what you say don’t mean nothing to me. What you do, your actions, speak louder than any words you can ever say.”
He called for the vote and added, “Mr. Mayor, I don’t expect this to pass.”
But Copenhaver quickly responded, “Well, I’m going to make a prediction that it is going to pass today.”
As the commission began a role call vote, the first commissioner called, Davis, was out of the room.
Commissioners began looking for her, but Williams insisted, “Look, that’s a no (vote). Go ahead. Come on, now.”
The clerk went on to the next commissioner and, to Williams’ great surprise, each of his colleagues voted to approve Gentry’s request.
Williams was so amazed, he couldn’t help but laugh as he also voted to approve the motion. Gentry’s request was approved 9-0 with Davis out of the room.
Copenhaver simply smiled and thanked each of the commissioners.
“Now if we could just proceed on with that spirit,” Copenhaver said, “that would be a good thing.”