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Column: 2021 in review

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January is the namesake of the mythological Roman god of gates and doors. Janus has two heads facing opposite directions: one looking back, the other looking forward. With the end of the year closing in on us it seems, let’s eavesdrop as Janus reviews some events of the past year

Janus looks back at 2021, and as in 2020, sees the pandemic still the focus of news throughout the year with people dying from the complications of COVID-19, lawsuits being filed over mask and vaccine mandates and all other sorts of madness. Janus says he knows something about plagues and pandemics. He recalls the Antonine Plague of 165 to 180 AD. Also known as the Plague of Galen, it was the first known plague pandemic impacting the Roman Empire. It killed 5 million people. It was like smallpox or measles.

While Janus’s review of 2021 was supposed to be like the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, it’s really going to be more like the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, because so much happened in local government and politics. Actually, I had to ask Janus to skip much of what went on the first half of the year because it has already faded into insignificance.

So, Janus looks back at 2021 and sees:

The search for a new fire chief beginning in January and the city accepting applications from all over the nation.

March

Gov. Brian Kemp signs a bill that allows Columbia County to have its own judicial circuit, breaking away from the Augusta Judicial circuit that had remained unchanged for more than a century and a half.

Also in March, Augusta voters overwhelmingly approve another SPLOST package.

Many so-called “quality of life” items such as a military museum, as well as funding for the Augusta Canal Heritage Area, the Jewish Museum and the Augusta Museum of History were axed, but money to build a water park made the final draft.

Janus says the water park is like bread and circus, which helped doom the Roman Empire.

April

Janus sees at least one commissioner speaking out on Mayor Hardie Davis’ credit-card use and calling for an audit of spending by the mayor’s office.

“There needs to be accountability,” says Commissioner John Clarke.  “For some people, there’s a lot to be said for paper shredders and ashtrays with lighter fluid.”

The Augusta Finance Department provided the credit card records, but the Mayor’s Office declined to provide invoices or receipts for many purchases.

Janus said that wouldn’t happen in the Roman Empire. Invoices and receipts were carved into stone, which kept them from being burned or shredded.

Janus sees three local media groups, including The Augusta Press, going to court to compel Augusta to comply with the Georgia open records law by releasing documents related to the four fire chief finalists interviewed earlier in the month.

May

Janus sees Superior Court Judge Jesse Stone issuing a ruling that the city must halt its search for a new fire chief until it abides by the open records laws.

The ruling issues an injunction in the matter of The Augusta Press et.al. v. The City of Augusta.

The Augusta Press, along with three other media outlets petitioned the court for an injunction to keep commissioners from voting on their chosen finalist for Augusta’s fire chief, Antonio Burden, until the city provides documents on the other four people who interviewed for the position.

Then, after the city is forced by court order to release documents about the selection of a new chief, more questions emerge about the top candidate, Burden, and how he made the cut.

Emails between GovHR, a Northbrook, Ill., firm and the city between January and April of this year indicate that city officials did not follow the advice they paid $8,108 for. Burden rose to the top of the list despite not being recommended by GovHR as one of the top candidates.

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June

Janus sees Davis issuing a late-night news release calling for the city to audit his credit-card usage because he’s under scrutiny for not producing receipts for thousands of dollars of credit-card spending.

Multiple open records requests filed for copies of invoices or receipts for credit card charges have gone unanswered. A large portion of those receipts are missing.

Janus says, “Trust but verify. If you can’t verify, don’t trust.”

Also in June, Janus sees Augusta commissioners agreeing to aim for a $30,000-a-year salary and a $15-an-hour minimum wage for all employees.

They also discussed incentives to encourage people to take the COVID-19 vaccinations using American Rescue Plan Act dollars.

July

Things start to heat up in July, and Janus sees the commission voting down a proposal to audit spending by employees and elected officials. At the same meeting, they vote to accept the fiscal year 2022 budget workshop summary that included regular budget items as well as how to use the ARPA funding.

That workshop is where Mayor Pro Tem Bobby Williams proposes giving each commissioner $1 million of the rescue plan money to use in their districts.

Janus laughed when he heard Commissioner John Clarke say giving each commissioner a $1 million-dollar blank check is a recipe for disaster.

“This is just malfeasance waiting to happen,” Clarke says. “With no oversight, how would we know if commissioners aren’t funneling money to their friends or even paying people’s rent?”

Janus says, not to worry. “The government is already paying people’s rent.

Then things start to really get hot, and Janus sees Clarke’s call for an in-depth forensic audit of the entire Augusta government in response to Davis’ questionable spending fail on a 4-6 vote.

Clarke says whenever anybody uses the word “forensic,” everybody goes into a tailspin and starts talking about criminal activity.

And Janus laughed when Commissioner Dennis Williams asks this brilliant question, “Why should there be a forensic audit where there has not been anything done wrong? The idea of a forensic audit gives the general perception somebody is doing something wrong. And the public will believe something has been done wrong.”

Janus asks, “How do you know there has not been anything done wrong?”

Burden is sworn in at the Marble Palace.

The event is crowded for what Mayor Hardie Davis called “a momentous occasion.”

It got hotter still in July for Commissioner Sammie Sias when he’s indicted on two federal counts.

District 3 Commissioner Catherine Smith-McKnight is quick to call for Sias to step down immediately and says this latest turn of events only strengthens her case calling for a city-wide audit, including the financial inconsistencies in the mayor’s office and other departments.

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August

Administrator Odie Donald proposes increasing the $10 million of American Rescue Plan money that Bobby Williams proposed dividing up among commissioners to $12 million. His plan calls for Super District commissioners Clarke and Francine Scott to each get $1.5 million and for the mayor to be included and get $1 million.

Janus says, “If you include the mayor in your money giveaway, the likelihood for malfeasance is increased fourfold.”

Also in August, an internal audit commissioned by Davis shows that the mayor’s office violated both state law and city procurement procedures with the use of a city-issued credit card.

Then, Janus sees commissioners approve a $15 minimum wage for employees and $100 gift cards to incentivize residents to get the jab.

Janus also sees that Augusta has dropped to the third largest city in Georgia.

Next, Gov. Brian Kemp suspends Commissioner Sammie Sias from office. Sias is still being paid, though.

Janus says that would never happen in the Roman Empire. They would just throw him to the lions.

September

Alvin Mason is sworn in as interim District 4 commissioner to fill Sias’ unexpired term. 

And U.S. District Court Judge Randy Hall enters a judgment in favor of Augusta, expected to end a two-year legal battle between the city and the local strip clubs. 

The clubs remain open because the judge’s ruling means they can sell alcohol and have exotic animals in the building, but the dancers must be clothed.

Discotheque Inc. has filed an appeal to the 11th Circuit.

October

Some Summerville and Forrest Hills residents float the idea of seceding from Augusta over the proposed redistricting plan to split District 3. They would create their own city of Summerville.

Also in October, commissioners increase the Vax Up Augusta! bribe by authorizing $100 gift cards to be given for both shots of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Janus says that would never happen in the Roman Empire. The citizens would have to pay the government 2 drachmas to get the jab although there wasn’t such a thing as a jab back then.

November

Commissioners adopt the 2022 city budget of just under $1 billion or $79.6 million over this year’s budget. The city is set to spend 8.6 percent more money next year, but the administrator insists that the overall budget is not increasing.

“To make it clear, at my direction there was no increase in the budget,” he says. “Everyone was required to operate with a flat budget.” 

Odie’s book on government finance, “Voodoo Economics,” is expected to top the New York Times bestseller list.

Janus says, “The book will sell like hotcakes because everybody wants to know how to spend more money and make people believe you didn’t.”

Janus also sees the Coliseum Authority’s $240 million bond referendum go down in flames, after which the members regroup to try to figure out what hit them.

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December

In December, the administrator’s office releases a statement announcing that the Vax Up Augusta! Program, administered by the Richmond County Department of Public Health has successfully given out all 3,300 gift card incentives and that the program has exceeded expectations.

Janus says, “They declared victory and went home.”

In mid-December, an inquiry by the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, aka Ethics Commission, that began in 2018 expands to include an investigation of Mayor Hardie Davis and Tonia Gibbons, former community relations and engagement director for the mayor’s office.

Documents show the mayor used $24,000 in public funds to support the referendum campaign to have the new James Brown Arena moved to the Regency Mall site.

At issue are several billboards that The Concerned Citizens of Richmond County group purchased in 2018. Those billboards urged voters to vote “yes” on a non-binding ballot initiative on whether to build the new James Brown Arena at the site of the former Regency Mall. Voters overwhelmingly did not support the measure.

The Ethics Commission has begun a second ethics probe involving Davis that centers on his personal campaign finance reports dating back to 2014.

According to the official complaint filed with the Commission in August, Davis is facing five counts alleging he failed to file campaign finance reports in a timely manner.

Janus says, “If you want me to continue keeping an eye on Richmond County, I’m going to need more money. And why not? Everybody else that works for the government got one.”

10 COMMENTS

  1. I love and appreciate Ms. Cooper’s reporting but can only stomach reading half of today’s article for now. I must go retch at the ineptitude and compete incompetence of our local governance. Maybe then I can resume at July’s recap forward. SMDH.

  2. Thankyou Sylvia for keeping a close eye on our overstrength, overpaid, underperforming city/county government! BUT, I am not talking about first responders and the dedicated folks who are on the front lines, doing good daily. I AM talking about the talking heads who in many cases do not have concern for the folks they allegedly represent. I consider it a microcosm of Washington, DC!

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