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Column: Augusta city government’s week in review

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(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column of those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Augusta Press.) 

The news in brief: Questions asked and answered

Q: Were people in city government surprised when Augusta commissioners came out of a closed-door meeting Tuesday and voted unanimously to hire Central Services Director Takiyah Douse as interim city administrator for $190,000 a year and a $600-a-month car allowance.

A: Were they surprised? Yes, they were so surprised, they took a collective gasp that created such a vacuum. It took 24 hours for oxygen levels to rise enough for folks to realize what had happened and get their tongues to start wagging again.

Q: When did a majority of commissioners decide to offer the job to Douse, and when did she accept it?

A: The decision was made by the majority after they had worked it all out on their mobile devices. And Douse had accepted the job before Tuesday’s closed-door meeting for commissioners to pretend to discuss the hiring that was already a done deal.

Q: Was anybody else considered for the job?

A: Yes. Overtures were made to Deputy City Administrator Tanikia Jackson who declined for family reasons. And Commissioner Catherine Smith McKnight wanted to consider the IT Department’s Chief Information Officer Tameka Allen for the job but was told the votes weren’t there.

Q: Why didn’t commissioners seriously consider Allen? That was a slap in the face of a very capable, loyal and experienced department director who served dual roles as IT director and Deputy City Administrator for then-City Administrator Fred Russell for nine years and interim administrator after Russell left. She also worked day and night during the 2014 ice storm, and she prepared the 2015 city budget. She had applied for the city administrator’s job, but commissioners hired Janice Jackson instead.

A: Commissioners didn’t consider Allen for the same reason they ignored former Mayor Bob Young’s offer to serve as interim administrator without pay which could have saved a half-million dollars, more or less. They don’t want an experienced administrator who knows more than they do. They wanted somebody they can call their own.

Q: When tongues started wagging again after the shock had worn off, what were people saying?

A: That Richmond County Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick got Douse the job because he hired her in his department in 2008 where she became director of the motor vehicle division in the tax office. In 2016, she became director of Central Services. And he’d like for her to be administrator if he’s elected mayor.

Q: What does Kendrick say to rumors he got Douse the job?

A: “I gave her a recommendation when asked. I wasn’t involved in the process until it was well down the road. … I would tell you if I was.”

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She might be a little under qualified, or she might be Wonder Woman

Time will tell, but everything I‘ve seen or heard about Douse is positive, and she might well be up to managing a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise. At least she says she is. She certainly responds to commission grilling about situations in her department, armed with facts and delivered with poise and confidence. And from what I heard about Commissioner Sammie Sias trying to tell her how to do her job before he had to step down, she won’t be bullied. And too, she did return a phone call which goes a long way toward good media relations although some city officials don’t see it that way. I called one department last week and asked for a copy of the administrator’s job requirements and was told they aren’t allowed to give that out and that I could look it up online.

Anyway, Douse said she was extremely excited about her appointment. And when I asked her whether she was comfortable with being able to handle the job, she said, “Absolutely!”

If they’re going to light up Augusta, they’re going to lighten up your wallet, too

Among outgoing-City Administrator Odie Donald’s advice and admonitions to commissioners last week was a recommendation to use some of the $6 million American Rescue Plan allocation to cover the city’s growing streetlight deficit through next year and raise the streetlight fees countywide.

Based on property tax bills, there are 82,000 assessed parcels of property in Richmond County, but only 64,000 of them are generating revenue in relation to streetlight funds. So, Donald proposed working with homeowners’ associations to turn their streetlights over to the city, billing the currently unbilled residential parcels at $50 a year and including the homeowners’ associations and the currently exempt properties in Hephzibah and Blythe. Property owners who now pay $85 a year would pay $100 a year; commercial properties’ rates would increase to $175 a year from $107.

Parcels in the urban services district that have a line item of $50 on tax bills would, based on some formula that Donald went over but that would require further study on my part to comprehend, would have the effect of reducing some commercial property millage.

The point of the increases would be to begin creating a surplus in the streetlight fund. Donald proposed using $1.5 million of the $6 million ARP allocation to cover the streetlight fund deficit and $4.5 million on infrastructure for a Light Up Augusta program. Getting out of the red into the black for the foreseeable future is contingent on commissioners implementing the plan this year. It needs to be approved by late May to get on this year’s property tax bills.

Commissioner Brandon Garrett asked on what basis the city could charge streetlight fees on Hephzibah and Blythe properties, and Donald said based on they were part of the consolidated government.

Garrett said he didn’t think they could do that. Donald said he thought they could.

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He’s Working Too Hard

Garrett apparently got under Odie’s skin when he made a joking offhand comment about Odie having “one foot out the door.” Odie didn’t seem to think that was funny one little bit and said he’d dispute he had one foot out the door. If so, he would have been taking some of the vacation he’s accrued since he’s been in Augusta. He said he had three more days to work and would be working to give Augusta a world class government until then. And he mentioned Garrett’s comment again the next day during his exit interview where he also talked about upcoming economic developments, an ongoing disparity study that to nobody’s surprise found that Black- and women-owned businesses and vendors weren’t getting their fair share of city business.

And the solution is….hire more people, grow government. What else?

Augusta Press Senior Reporter Scott Hudson reported that Rodney Strong of Griffin and Strong, PC of Atlanta, the firm conducting the disparity study, said the city has made great strides in equity, but there is more to be done, including guaranteeing that more minority-owned businesses are given the opportunity to work as subcontractors. Thus “guaranteeing” fewer white-owned businesses are given an opportunity. 

Strong said his study has determined that minority-owned firms account for only 13% of the contracts given out for city construction and engineering projects. 

According to Strong, the percentage could be doubled, and he recommended the city should strengthen the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Department and add to the department’s staff to enable them to “force compliance on companies that obtain contracts through the Procurement Department to use more minority-owned firms as subcontractors.” Wow! What country is this again?

Maybe his foot should have been out the door six months ago

After approving Donald’s recommendations for using the $82 million ARP allocation, some commissioners are starting to question what’s going to happen when the federal money runs out and the raises and new employees he proposed remain. In response, Donald reminds them that the expenses he recommended are recommendations only and that it takes commission action to spend the money. But since raises and new employees are already in next year’s commission-approved budget, they’re as good as spent, aren’t they?

When you hire someone to shepherd the flock, you expect them to shepherd the flock and keep the wolves away and not lead the flock to a cliff and let the sheep decide whether to jump off or not.

This month in recent years

Feb. 2, 2014

You might think a fire alarm going off in the Marble Palace during an Augusta commission meeting would make commissioners stop talking and leave the building posthaste, but you’d be wrong.

Four hours, 13 minutes and 17 seconds into Tuesday’s meeting, an ear-piercing fire alarm sounded, but they kept on talking.

“Time’s up,” said Commissioner Grady Smith, but nobody listened.

Engineering Director Abie Ladson was at the podium updating commissioners on the storm cleanup. The mayor asked him when he thought he would have the final costs of the cleanup. Ladson said he’d been meeting with FEMA officials that day.

Commissioner Joe Jackson asked Ladson whether they could get the city cleaned up before the Masters, and all the while lights flashed and the alarm sounded. Then, Fire Chief Chris James entered and ordered them to leave the building; whereupon Commissioner Donnie Smith moved to adjourn the meeting.

As it turned out, there was no fire. There wasn’t even a whiff of smoke.  Vibrations from building renovations had apparently shaken an alarm handle loose, setting off the system.

Feb. 21, 2015

Commissioners frozen out of Mayor Davis’ plan to seize power and increase the size of his crown so it would fit his head that had gotten two sizes bigger since his election, were burned up to learn through the media that he wants to hire and fire department heads, appoint the city attorney, fire chief, EMA director, all of whom would answer to him. He also wants a veto over commission decisions and the power of the purse. Commissioners say they weren’t invited to Friday’s press conference or two earlier ones.

“The honeymoon is really over!” said Commissioner Marion Williams. 

Feb. 17, 2018

Augusta restaurateur Brad Usry ended months of speculation by saying he will not challenge Mayor Hardie Davis for his job this year.

Sylvia Cooper is a columnist with The Augusta Press. Reach her at [email protected]  

9 COMMENTS

  1. Anybody remember the “sidewalk construction fiasco” years ago when they hired high rank Ga Senator construction company to install sidewalks?

    Anybody remember when a president of USA stated he would only hire a black woman for a job on a high court.
    Anything seems to go these days if it favors one culture over others,

  2. I know and you know that if a private business was run this way it would go out of business. I see the commissioner’s plan to pay employees tomorrow and next year; but, how do they actually plan to function two or three years later?

  3. When I first became interested in politics back in the 1960’s when I was in high school, I thought that the leaders of our county, state and country were intelligent and wise. I thought they ran for office because they wanted to help and lead their citizens. I believed what they said and the promises they made. Sadly, I have learned that far too many politicians are not as smart as I am, have much less common sense, are blissfully ignorant and totally selfish. I once believed that people ran for a political office because they wanted to serve and share their knowledge for a short period of time and then return to the life and careers they had before. I now understand that I was very wrong and that it is simply about power and control and moving money from the taxpayer’s bank account into theirs. Do they care or even realize that they have lost the respect of almost everyone?

  4. A case for Racism? 1. Only thirteen percent of the contracts are given to minority owned companies? Blacks are thirteen percent of the population. 2. The NBA is seventy four percent Black. 3. The NFL is about the same thing. I also remember when Charles Walker had a Sidewalk company and the work was so bad all of them had to be re done, of course at tax payers expense. I too would like to see equity, but it’s going in the wrong direction. Will we ever get to everything is done with the best qualified person regardless of race? This country is headed in the wrong direction.

  5. “In response, Donald reminds them that the expenses he recommended are recommendations only and that it takes commission action to spend the money.” Who would not want to be the Augusta-Richmond County Administrator? $200,000+ per year, a car allowance, and the main responsibility of making financial and administrative recommendations to a mayor and commission who could not run a lemonade stand, all with no accountability or negative consequences for making bad recommendations. I’m thinking anyone, even a smart hamster, is qualified to fill this position. “He said he had three more days to work and would be working to give Augusta a world class government until then.” More like a world class poke.

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