It’s summer time and, for Yvonne Gentry, Augusta’s disadvantaged business coordinator, there appears to be blood in the water.
During a presentation before the Augusta Commission this week about a “path forward” on how the city should proceed in the implementation of the 2009 disparity study, Gentry walked up to the podium full of confidence.
That quickly changed.
What proceeded during the next 20 minutes shocked the commission, stunned the audience and left the future of the city’s disadvantage business enterprise office hanging by a thread.
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 $580,000 study has been basically sitting on a shelf collecting dust.
Every few months, a handful of commissioners have begged that the city stop dragging its feet and implement a race and gender conscious program to address the problems outlined in the disparity study.
But Gentry has frequently complained of roadblocks that have not allowed her to do her job.
Last year, she accused General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie and the law department of not cooperating with her.
As a result, the commission agreed to allow her and MacKenzie to meet with Colette Holt, a nationally recognized expert in designing and implementing affirmative action programs.
Earlier this year, Holt suggested that Augusta conduct a new disparity study, which could potentially cost the city another $600,000.
Holt also suggested that the city purchase a new software program, estimated to cost around $40,000.
Several of the commissioners began suffering from sticker shock, but they requested Gentry meet with Procurement Director Geri Sams and a representative from the law department to come up with a proposal on how to move forward.
Which brings us to this week’s explosive presentation before the administrative services committee.
While the agenda item called for Sams to give the presentation, Gentry walked straight up to the podium and placed a letter on the projector that outlined the commission’s request back in April that she meet with Sams and the legal department to come up with a plan.
She proceeded to tell the commission that she was not included in the meetings to develop a plan forward.
“I have had no input in the document that you have before you today,” Gentry said about the proposal provided to commissioners by Sams. “This document that you have before you today is a direct attack on the program, on the department, as well as the staff.”
Augusta Commissioner Bill Lockett, who is chairman of the administrative services committee, was taken aback by Gentry’s comments.
“You are saying that you had no involvement in this?” Lockett asked Gentry.
“No, sir,” Gentry said. “The document you have before you today, I’ve had no input in it. I saw it when you saw it.”
In the past, Lockett has always been quick to defend Gentry. But, this time, he wanted to hear the other side of the story.
“Hold on a second,” Lockett said to Gentry. “Mrs. Sams, will you please come up?”
As Sams walked up to the podium, she was shaking.
Not because she was scared, but because she was furious.
“Mr. Commissioner, I am shocked,” Sams said, adding that there was a meeting held in her office on May 5 in which Gentry was present along with members of her staff. “We discussed not only a path moving forward as it relates to the disparity study, of which Mrs. Gentry left the room, we discussed also the software package.”
During the meeting, Sams told commissioners she asked Gentry specific questions relating to the disadvantage business enterprise office.
“I so stated, in that meeting, that some of the things that I would bring back to you (the commission) would not be very favorable,” Sams said, “because we had found different things that indicated that we were not in a position to implement a new (disparity) study.”
As her voice began to shake, Sams paused a moment to compose herself.
“The information that was presented to you today was not discussed in total detail, but it was given to Ms. Gentry and her staff on that particular day with those persons from my staff present,” Sams said, pointing to members of her staff in the audience. “I’m very disappointed. I’m very disappointed that I stand before you here today giving you such information and you’re receiving information (from Gentry) that I find to be awfully petty, and I find to be disrespectful and I find it to be, as I stated in the agenda item, a blame game that has been happening since 2004.”
Commissioners began looking around the room at one another, stunned by Sams’ statements.
“Now, I don’t mind being blamed for not doing or following directions. It doesn’t bother me. But for someone to stand here and say they weren’t a part of something and they were, that’s upsetting to me,” Sams said. “And I want to go on record saying that the recommendation made to you was done strictly on the rules and regulation that govern this process.”
In her report to commissioners, Sams said that Augusta has had many discussions, workshops, directives and has become a “victim of the blame game” explanations from Gentry and her office.
Those excuses have resulted in the “loss of money from the last disparity study, time and disappointed vendors and taxpayers of Augusta,” she wrote.
Therefore, Sams said it was her opinion that a “disparity study would not be warranted” at this time.
“I also stand before you today to tell you that, where we are right now, I find the DBE office to be one office that needs some directive and I also find it to be totally dysfunctional,” Sams said.
The word “dysfunctional” hung in the air, as several commissioners immediately wanted to ask Sams questions regarding her statements.
Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy said he couldn’t believe the accusations being made on the commission floor.
“I’m getting conflicting comments on people in this city government that I have genuine respect for,” Fennoy said. “I need to find out what is actually going on with the DBE department.”
Lockett said he didn’t think he wanted to publicly discuss the matter any further on the commission floor, but Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams insisted that the “cat was already out of the bag.”
“I’m sort of devastated to hear both ladies say two different things,” Williams said. “But I’m thinking I need to hear some more… It is amazing to hear what I just heard, to stand in front of the whole body and say that. There has to be some truth somewhere.”
Williams asked if Gentry could address Sams’ comments to the commission, but Lockett did not wish for her to speak.
“What I was trying to avoid was a major spectacle,” Lockett said. “I don’t believe in just having embarrassing moments for the sake of doing it.”
But Gentry again tried to approach the podium.
“Can I just move forward and bring some clarity to it?” she asked.
But Lockett insisted that Gentry keep quiet.
“Ms. Gentry, you haven’t been recognized by the chair,” Lockett said. “I don’t know why you are up at the podium.”
“I’m sorry,” Gentry said, taking her seat and still trying to smile.
Interim City Administrator Tameka Allen agreed with Sams that the city and the DBE office have not made much progress regarding the disparity study.
“This has been going on for sometime,” Allen said. “I think the only resolution is going to be a resolution that this body actually makes as it relates to what is necessarily the directive of the DBE office, what are they charged with, who do they report to, what are you guys expecting from them. There needs to be some clear directive.”
There has been too much talk about the disparity study and not enough action, Allen said.
“We need to figure out really, do we even have enough information to even dictate to move to a disparity study?” Allen asked. “Do we have enough data gathered to even proceed with a disparity study?”
Lockett said his main concern was the conflicting approaches from both department directors.
“I believe that the disparity study has definitely been delayed too much,” he said. “But my concern now is, we have one director saying that a new disparity study is not necessary, if I am understanding you, Mrs. Sams, and one is saying it is.”
Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason, who had been sitting quietly during the entire conversation, said he needed to get something off of his chest.
“I just want to make a couple observations, having sat here for the last seven years, hearing much of the same things over and over again dealing with a lot of these petty issues and personality conflicts,” Mason said. “All I ask you to do is your job.
I don’t ask you to do anything more than that, just do your doggone job.”
There were several chuckles heard throughout the chamber.
“I have been sitting here seven years listening to this same foolishness and nothing has gotten done. Zero. Zilch. Nada,” Mason said. “It’s more than an embarrassment. It’s a shame is what it is.”
Mason pointed out that the city spent more than $500,000 on the disparity study and has put no course of action in place since it was completed in 2009.
“We are still letting petty personalities get in the way of progress,” Mason said, clearly annoyed. “We need to light some fire up under some butts is what we need to happen.”
Lockett said the best approach might be for the interim administrator and the law department to meet with Sams and Gentry to come up with a solution.
“I’m not even hopeful at this point, but if that is what you are going to do, I guess you can go ahead and do that,” Mason said, adding that what the city really needed was a change in “mindset.”
“We have some minds in here that need some serious transformation,” Mason said. “And that’s why we have been stuck at point zero for such a long period of time. Until we get serious about it — that means commissioners, directors, everybody — we are going to be in a world of hurt, and always on the short end of the stick.”
Then, Mason looked directly at Gentry.
“This is a shame. We have bright, intelligent people who are not doing bright, intelligent things,” he said. “But yet, at the end of the day, and after the two weeks, you get paid, you go home and you do whatever you do and you take the taxpayers’ money and you run with that. Half the time I don’t even know who the heck you work for or what you are doing.”
Mason, who joked that he was a lame duck on the commission anyway, said he was tired of biting his tongue on this matter.
“This has been going on a long time,” he said. “I hope this next commission and this next mayor can fix it because the citizens are tired, I’m tired and I know many of us are tired who put forth the best effort that we can to change this government.”
“Some people, I think, have gotten comfortable in their positions,” he added. “They’ve had nobody to report to, pretty much done their own thing and then cry foul when the opportunity presents itself. And we can’t get enough votes to boot them up out of here.”
Lockett asked his colleague to refrain from such remarks.
“I’m sorry. Yeah, I know, I’m on my diatribe right now,” Mason said, smiling. “But after seven years, I think I’m entitled to one diatribe. Yeah, well, cut me off, Mr. Chairman. Cut me off. But the truth stands. You can quiet it, but it stands all on its own.”
As the committee unanimously agreed to have the interim city administrator meet with the two departments, Gentry slowed walked back up to the podium, but Lockett again refused to allow her to speak.
“Ms. Gentry,” he said, looking directly at her. “You can have a seat now.”