Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mason Gets Partial Victory on Redistricting; Forensic Audit of Parking Deck Passes

Commissioner Alvin Mason
Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011
Augusta, GA

We were all prepared for an eventful commission meeting yesterday, and we certainly got one. As we told you on Monday: Mason Makes a Stand, Commissioner Al Mason had placed himself on the meeting's agenda reserved for citizens comments and presentations in order  to revisit the issue of redistricting. Mason was frustrated with a redistricting process that seemed to end up being a big charade. He  chaired the ad-hoc committee responsible for coming up with a compromise redistricting map for commission and school board districts. That committee was made up of  select commissioners, school board members, and members of the local state delegation.

On Nov. 29th the committee voted unanimously to approve the compromise map 3-R. Redistricting consultant Linda Meggars had gone through several revisions of various maps  (Ms Meggars' consultation services and expenses were paid for by the city government and the school board.).  In the end it was the revised map 3-R that everyone agreed on.

In his speech before the commission yesterday Al Mason said "We achieved what no one thought was possible... we achieved a 12-0 vote," over the unanimous decision of the ad-hoc committee to accept the compromise 3-R redistricting map. Mason went on to say, "No one held a gun to anyone's head... we had a feeling of 'Esprit de Corps', " and "there was a positive feeling in the room, a lot of back-slapping and handy shakes... we were proud of what we had accomplished."

But that "esprit de corps" did not last for long. Just a week later, at the December 6th commission meeting, Commissioners Grady Smith and Jerry Brigham, who served on the ad-hoc committee and had voted in favor of map 3-R, jumped ship and voted against it, resulting in a 5-5 tie that fell along racial lines. Since the mayor was absent, no one could break the stale-mate and so the map failed to win commission approval. This stunned Mason and many others, who considered commission approval of the map a mere formality after the unanimous vote from the ad-hoc committee. But something had obviously transpired within that week and it didn't smell right. Some speculated that the Mayor's absence was pre-arranged to set up the tie vote that would fail by default, and allowed Matt Aitken to vote yes knowing that the vote would be moot anyway. The Mayor quickly dismissed such talk as "conspiracy theory." Over the weekend, the mayor went on record stating that he favored the redistricting map and would have voted in favor of it if he was at the December 6th meeting. Critics question why the Mayor didn't make his position on the matter known earlier, before the December 6th vote.

Now knowing that the Mayor would have broken the tie in favor of the redistricting map, Commissioner Mason wanted a do-over of the December 6th vote to give the Mayor an opportunity to make good on his words. A motion to re-vote the matter was seconded, but the Mayor was denied an opportunity to cast a tie breaking vote. Once again the motion received 5 votes in favor with Mason, Johnson, Hatney, Lockett, and Aitken all voting yes. Commissioners Bowles, Guilfoyle, and Jackson once again voted in the negative, but instead of a 5-5 repeat tie, Commissioners Brigham and Smith (who previously voted in favor of the map while serving on the ad-hoc committee) abstained to avoid a tie which once again meant the motion to accept the map failed by default.

Mason said that he would not re-convene the ad-hoc committee. It had done its job and came to a unanimous compromise. But Mason was not willing to give up on the redistricting map. One of the options that we suggested for Mason in our Monday article was for him to ask for the Mayor and the 5 commissioners who voted in favor of Map 3-R to sign a letter endorsing it that would then be forwarded in a packet to the state legislature and the US Justice Department (which has final approval of redistricting). Mayor Copenhaver said that he would agree to this but wanted to make sure proper procedures were followed and wanted an opinion from the city legal department first, and if they agreed that such action was  legal, then he would sign an letter of endorsement.

We have to applaud the Mayor for this action. It demonstrated that he was willing to make good on his statements of endorsing the plan. Rather than just saying he would have done something, here the mayor would be going on record, signing his signature in support of it. It also served to debunk any ideas that the Mayor was collaborating with others to defeat the map without having to officially take a position either way.  Also, with the Mayor's support, it paints the 3 commissioners who voted no and the two who abstained as looking like the obstructionists who are unwilling to compromise on the issue.

And speaking of obstructionism, what about the two abstentions? In the past, the use of the abstention loophole has been much maligned by commissioners and  the media as a tricky way of defeating a motion by denying the Mayor a tie breaking vote. For there to be a tie, the vote has to fall 5-5, but an abstention keeps that from happening, so the measure fails by default. Some commissioners have called for an end of abstentions all together or for them to be considered "no" votes. There have been countless editorials in the Augusta Chronicle criticizing the practice and the commissioners who use it. But some people see a racial double standard when it comes to outrage over playing the "abstention card." And we have to wonder if we will see a forthcoming editorial in the Augusta Chronicle chastising Commissioners Brigham and Smith for abstaining yesterday to deny the Mayor an opportunity to break the tie over redistricting

The Third Time is a Charm When it Comes to Forensic Audits
Commissioner Bill Lockett
Perhaps the biggest surprise from yesterday's commission meeting was that Commissioner Bill Lockett finally won approval for a forensic audit to investigate city financial deals. But instead of a wide-ranging audit of all city finances which Lockett had previously asked for, this time it was limited  to focusing on just the land acquisitions and financial arrangements involved with the TEE Center parking decks. Not that Lockett did not try again for an omnibus forensic audit.. he went in that direction yet again but was pulled back to focus on the TEE parking deck saying :"It depends on how you want to tweak it.." and then he referenced a 0.07 acre land swap transaction that the city engaged in with State Sen. William S Jackson, that "increased  value of all property" where the deck now sits.

New $12 Million TEE Center Parking Deck
Commissioner Joe Bowles, who previously had been outraged upon learning that the city had built a $12 million parking deck on land the city didn't own, came out against the audit. Bowles was now even defending the financial arrangement that had the city only owning air-rights instead of the land that Fred Russell said would be donated to the city at a Dec. 9, 2009 commission meeting. Bowles said that not owning the land saved the city $1.7 million on construction of the deck, "we didn't have to acquire the land," Bowles said. Though so far Bowles has been unable to verify those figures. And if not owning the land where the deck sits actually saved the city money, then it makes the land swap transaction for the city to acquire the 0.07 acre corner parcel for the deck even more strange. Why did the city go to so much trouble to acquire a small parcel of land for the deck and not acquire the rest? If keeping the land under private ownership saved the city money, then why didn't 933 Broad Investment LLC (the entity the owns the rest of the land) not acquire that parcel from State Sen Jackson instead of the city? Perhaps those are some of the questions a forensic audit will answer.

Commissioner Mason took exception with Commissioner Bowles' statements, especially about air-rights versus owning the land, "No one got back to you (Bowles) and I" about changes in the deal. At that point Mason made a substitute motion to begin a forensic audit on the TEE deck land acquisition and financing."

Commissioners Grady Smith and Wayne Guilfoyle Cross Over

Commissioners Grady Smith  and Wayne Guilfoyle (right)
Mason's substitute motion for a forensic audit focusing on the TEE Center parking decks passed because Commissioners Wayne Guilfoyle and Grady Smith crossed racial lines to vote in favor of it with Commissioners, Lockett, Mason, Hatney, and Johnson. It is also important to note that Guilfoyle and Smith also crossed racial lines to vote against the incomplete Overlay application for Laney-Walker back in early November. This is significant also because the TEE Center and parking deck bond financing is inextricably tied to the Laney-Walker redevelopment plan of which the overlay district is an element.

We applaud Commissioners Smith and Guilfoyle for  looking at this as not a black vs white issue but a right vs wrong issue. There are indeed many unanswered questions regarding the TEE Center and its parking decks. Let's also not forget that David Fry will soon be on trial for allegedly bribing two commissioners over this very same parking deck. Critics of a forensic audit say it is too costly, but Lockett maintains that it will cost no more than a regular internal audit and depending on what it uncovers, it could end up saving the city much more than it costs.

What Will a Forensic Audit Do?
A forensic audit differs greatly from a regular internal audit in that it searches for criminal wrong doing. Commissioner Lockett told WRDW News that "if something is prosecutable or someone can go to jail... so be it." You can see more of WRDWs' report below: But some people caution that it is important which firm is selected to perform the audit and that a thorough audit is performed with citizens oversight. Also, tasking Fred Russell with choosing an auditing firm would undermine the process as many of the missteps over the parking deck involve the city administrator. So Fred Russell should be taken out of that process.
The timing of the audit could get very interesting with David Fry's bribery trial getting under way sometime after the new year. Depending on what the audit finds or what is uncovered in the Fry trial, this could open up a whole can of worms, bringing other city financial deals into doubt and begging more scrutiny. Commissioner Bill Lockett may just get his omnibus forensic audit after all.***
--more to come
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