In a three-hour meeting where the Augusta Commission narrowly approved implementing the controversial stormwater utility fee with a tight 6-4 vote, it is not surprising that tensions were high and blood sugars were low by the end of the day.
During a late afternoon discussion about which individuals are actually authorized to attend the city’s legal meetings, Augusta Commissioner Sean Frantom, who placed the item on the agenda, quickly suggested the commission tackle the hot-button issue another day.
“You know, we are elected to be a team,” Frantom said to his colleagues. “We are elected to show respect for one another and we are elected to communicate with each other. I’ve been on this commission for three months and one of the things that I haven’t seen is we are not working with each other. We are working at each other.”
The issue of who should be allowed to attend the Augusta Commission’s legal meeting came about after some commissioners questioned whether Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis’ chief of staff, Lynthia Owens, should be present during the closed-door meetings.
But instead of addressing the issue during the July 21 meeting, Frantom wished to send the item back to committees for further discussion.
Even though commissioners voted 8-2 to send the item back to the committee meetings, the two commissioners who voted against the motion — commissioners Marion Williams and Bill Fennoy — continued to discuss the matter.
“We just need to go ahead and decide and get it over with,” Fennoy told his colleagues, explaining that if they postponed the discussion until next week’s committee meeting, it would simply cause further confusion. “Prior to the next committee meeting, we are going to have a legal meeting. And if we are going to have a legal meeting, I want to know who can and cannot be in there. Anyone who is authorized to be in there, I think they should be in there.”
Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams said Fennoy was absolutely correct and that the issue should be resolved prior to next week.
“I enjoyed (Frantom’s) short speech about how we ought to be working together. And I agree with that, but that is not always the case,” Williams said, adding that sometimes there will be disagreements on the commission. “This is a very serious issue that we are talking about and we need to address it so we can get it resolved.”
Delaying tough decisions only creates more tension, Williams said.
“Sometimes you have to make tough decisions. Sometimes you have to stand up and vote and be all by yourself,” Williams said, turning to speak directly to Davis. “My point is, Mr. Mayor, that if we don’t get this resolved, I don’t think we should have another legal meeting until we do get it resolved.”
Despite what some people may think, Williams insisted that he had absolutely no problem with Davis’ chief of staff and the job that she is doing in the mayor’s office.
“I have sympathy for the young lady that was in the meeting,” Williams said of Owens. “It should not have been discussed while she was there.”
Williams looked directly at Owens, who was seated in the audience, and said it was wrong to have debated the issue last week while she was attending a legal meeting.
“I wouldn’t have invited you into a situation and had you sit there and not be able to say or do anything and just listen to that,” Williams said.
Mayor Pro Tem Grady Smith insisted the wisest thing to do was ask the city’s general counsel, Andrew MacKenzie, to rule on the matter.
“This body doesn’t currently have a written policy relating to the attendance of legal meetings,” MacKenzie said, explaining that the commission has always utilized “the will of the body” to determine which city employees could attend the legal meeting. “That has worked well for some time, but if we need to look at that again, that is the will of the body as well.”
Williams simply shook his head after hearing the attorney’s comments.
“This is the first time that I have heard that anybody came into legal who didn’t have something that was relevant to that particular subject that we were talking about in legal,” Williams said.
He agreed there have been department directors and deputy administrators in closed-door meetings in the past, but they were there because they had direct information regarding a legal issue.
Williams insisted that there have been previous rulings by past county attorneys relating to who can and cannot be allowed in the legal meetings.
“The attorney said there is no rule,” Williams said. “Now, if you don’t have a rule, you ought to go find the rule wherever the rule is at. The rule states that the legal meeting is set up for the mayor, the commission and the attorney.”
In fact, the attorney doesn’t even have to be included in a closed-door meeting, Williams insisted.
“If you call for an executive session, you can even exclude the attorney if we just want to talk among ourselves,” Williams said, directing his comments to MacKenzie. “So that is untrue and I take issue when we are paying a certified attorney to sit here and tell us that there is no rules. Then we might as well hold a legal meeting right here (in the commission chamber) versus going into another room to hold a legal meeting.”
The mayor attempted to clarify what he believed MacKenzie was trying to say to the commission.
“The question of whether or not we have a rule as it relates to this has long been answered,” Davis said. “There is no rule that this commission has. There is no ordinance that this commission has. There is no statutory requirement.”
In fact, Davis said during a July 7 legal meeting, Commissioner Ben Hasan specifically asked whether Owens should be allowed in the closed-door meeting.
“When the question was asked by the mayor, and this is in the record, ‘Is there an objection?’ At that time, and it is in the record, no one indicated an objection,” Davis said. “And yet we find ourselves here again.”
Davis said he is open to discussing the matter, but he was not going to allow anyone to disparage Owens’ role in the government.
“It is almost as if this is an attempt to impugn the character of a very capable and competent professional. I will not allow that,” Davis said. “This individual has represented this government with utmost professionalism.”
The mayor said the legal meetings are all about attorney-client privilege.
“There has not been a violation of attorney-client privilege because Ms. Owens works for the government, at the pleasure of the mayor,” he said. “There are no other rules.”
But Williams pledged not to attend another legal meeting until the matter is resolved.
“If one commissioner has a problem with anybody in that meeting, they can ask them to leave,” Williams said. “Like it or not, those are the rules.”