Twenty years of Augusta’s consolidation government, talk about damning with faint praise.
“Now, whether it was the best idea or the worst idea, the fact of the matter is we had to do something,” says former State Senator Charles Walker.
“It was full of good intentions, but the execution of it left a lot to be desired and still to this day, twenty years later, does,” says former Augusta Mayor Bob Young.
“It was the equivalent of a shotgun wedding, you know,” says former Richmond County Commissioner Moses Todd.
“Considering the time in which it was passed, we couldn’t have done anything else,” says attorney David Hudson.
Former State Senator Charles Walker was one of the leaders behind the creation of the Consolidation Bill, saying ands says it was not created under the best of circumstances. “Absolutely, if there is one distinguished characteristic, that it was drafted under the cloud of fear and distrust,” says Walker.
Moses Todd was a Richmond County Commissioner when the Consolidation Bill was approved and he says it worried many in the minority community. “They were concerned that they were going to get bamboozled and hoodwinked on the deal,” says Todd.
So, why create a consolidated government?
Hudson, who helped draft the bill, says it was about economics and the terrible financial condition of the old city government. “The finances of the city were not good. The tax base was eroding, people were moving out of the city limits, there was no new industrial expansion within the city limits,” says Hudson.
“It was not going to help anybody for the city to go broke, or bankrupt, or the city to be taken over by the state,” says Todd.
The determining factor was the economic survival of our community. With a city in bankruptcy, it would have destroyed industry and a whole lot of stuff in Augusta,” says Walker.
But, the resulting government has had its own issues – gridlock and bickering, with the Mayor powers being limited to basically only voting to break a tie.
Walker says the weak Mayor was by design. “The Mayor in the city of Augusta had all the powers and he spent everything we had and broke the city,” says Walker.
“Would it work better if the Mayor had more power?” we asked Todd. “Well, the city of Augusta, the Mayor had more power. How did that work out for us?” says Todd.
It’s been 20 years of consolidation, so should this government stay this way for the next 20 years? Even some of those who helped create it no don’t think so.
“It’s not a good model to have ten commissioners micro-managing the affairs of the government,” says Hudson.
So, does that need to change and how do you go about getting a better model government?
Back in February, current Mayor Davis raised a few eyebrows when, after six weeks on the job, he said his office needed more authority, like hiring and firing some department heads and vetoing Augusta Commission actions. It didn’t go over well with Commissioners. “This is a power struggle, I believe. I totally disagree with it, I don’t understand it, haven’t been in office 60 days yet,” says Commissioner Marion Williams.
Hudson helped write the original Consolidation Bill, but he says it’s time for a rewrite. “It’s not a good model to have ten commissioners micro-managing the affairs of the government,” says Hudson.
Young spent six and a half years as Mayor of Augusta, “Are there ways to change the functioning of government?” we asked. “I think that there are,” he answered.
Young believes the Mayor should be the city’s chief executive, not just simply a ribbon cutter. “He’s got to be more than that. When he’s meeting with business people, he’s got to be able to make commitments and decisions and not worry about a Commission second guessing him when he does,” says Young.
With Nearly 10 years on job, nobody has spent more time as Mayor than Deke Copenhaver, He says, after two decades, the charter needs changing and that someone other than ten Commissioners needs to be in charge. “The Mayor is the only elected official that’s elected at large, so I think that adding some sort of responsibilities to that office would not be a bad thing,” says Copenhaver.
“Personally, I don’t want to see one person in charge of everything. I would like to see it spread out,” says Walker.
Twenty years ago Walker was the driving force behind the current consolidation set up, he doesn’t believe the government needs a major makeover, but understands there could be some changes like treating the mayor like the other Commissioners.
“Maybe he should have a vote, like everybody else. That might be a solution,” says Walker.
“Twenty years from Devaney, I think to say we don’t want another DeVaney, or there were mistakes. That’s not something relevant to today. We’re almost a full generation later,” Young says. He suggests creating a charter commission at the 20th anniversary to review the bill and recommend possible changes.
But, sooner or later, Augusta leaders say it is time to revisit the bill that set up this government.
“Years down the line, that’s your business plan, and if you don’t change your business plan in twenty years, you go out of business,” Copenhaver says.
Hudson says it’s time Augusta gets some outside help to set up the change. “I think it would do well to have the University of Georgia Institute of Government come down here and look at how were doing things, recommend best practices, and ask our legislators to change our model if there’s a better way of doing it.”
It’s been done this way for twenty years, right now changing the structure of city government still is all talk.