The long-discussed non-discrimination ordinance received unanimous approval during the Nov. 9 meeting of the Augusta Commission’s Administrative Services Committee.
A full Augusta Commission vote is the next step for the proposed ordinance.
The committee vote came after months of meetings of the NDO Working Group, made up of elected officials, and community and business leaders. District 9 Commissioner Francine Scott chaired the working group.
Scott said, “I know a lot of people were saying, ‘Why is it taking so long,’ but I wanted to have something that would be friendly enough for everybody to embrace, from the business owners, the community leaders, faith base and the constituents of Richmond County, but still strong enough to enforce.”
District 1 Commissioner Jordan Johnson, a member of the working group, agreed.
“I think that we’ve worked hard to get the ordinance to a place to where it not only helps people be protected from discrimination, but it also helps businesses thumb through false claims as well. We don’t want to punish anyone. We want to build an equitable Augusta,” said Johnson.
The group began with the city of Savannah’s ordinance as a basic framework, then modified it to better suit the needs in Augusta.
The ordinance would allow the city to impose a fine on any business that is found to have committed discrimination against a person because of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, marital status, familial status or veteran/military status.
The complaint must be filed with the city’s Compliance Department within 90 calendar days of the alleged discrimination. Complainants must pay a $50.00 filing fee. If they are financially unable to pay the fee, they may sign an affidavit of poverty and request the fee be waived.
The Compliance Department will appoint a hearing officer — an attorney with experience in constitutional law, employment law and housing discrimination — to review the complaint. If the hearing officer finds merit in the complaint, it will be referred to a mediator for non-binding mediation. If either party chooses not to participate in the voluntary mediation or is dissatisfied by the outcome, the hearing officer can schedule a hearing to collect evidence and testimony.
After the investigation and any hearing, the hearing officer can then dismiss the complaint as unfounded or can rule a violation has occurred. The fine for the first violation is $500. It increases to $1,000 for each subsequent fine. If either party is unhappy with the decision, they can file an appeal with Magistrate Court.
Mayor Hardie Davis first proposed the ordinance in 2019.
“I’ve said from day one that what I want to see in Augusta is that we are a city of opportunity for everyone; where people want to live, to learn, to work and raise their families. The adoption of the ordinance will signify that,” Davis said.
The ordinance will be on the Nov. 16 commission meeting agenda for a final vote.