Monday, December 19, 2011

Mason Makes a Stand

Monday, Dec. 19, 2011
Augusta, GA
Dustin Goads

To say that Commissioner Alvin Mason is "fed-up" would be an understatement. Frustration over how the Augusta Commission has been conducting business over the past year has been building and the latest controversy over redistricting has reached the boiling point for Mason. So at tomorrow's commission meeting Mason will step from behind the dais and address his colleagues as a citizen, placing himself on the meeting's agenda reserved for citizens' remarks and presentation.

Like any other citizen, Commissioner Mason will be allowed  5 minutes to address his colleagues. He has stated that he wants to discuss the issue of redistricting and specifically what went wrong at the last commission meeting when five white commissioners voted against the compromise redistricting Map 3-R resulting in a 5-5 tie. Since the Mayor was on vacation and unable to cast a rare tie-breaking vote, the motion to endorse the map failed by default.

The Political Theater of Redistricting
What has particularly irritated Mason, who chaired the ad-hoc redistricting committee responsible for coming up with the map, is that two of the commissioners who served with him on the ad-hoc committee, (Jerry Brigham and Grady Smith) had voted to endorse the map along with every other member of the committee on Nov. 29. But when it came to the commission vote on Dec 6 , they had changed their tune and voted against it.

Mason was stunned and he saw it as a slap in the face and an effort to embarrass him as the chairman of the redistricting committee. What happened? Why did they change their minds? Some observers believe it was all a set-up from the beginning, that Brigham and Smith only pretended to support the map at the committee vote with the intention of voting against it at the commission in an effort to snatch a victory away from Mason.

After the ad-hoc committee voted unanimously to approve the 3-R map, Mason heralded it as a great moment of compromise for a local government that has had great difficulty in agreeing on much of anything. Some people credited Mason's leadership on the committee for this. And perhaps it was the view that redistricting would be seen as a major victory for Mason, who many observers speculate will run for Mayor, was why Brigham and Smith switched their votes at the commission meeting so that Mason, who was beaming a week earlier over the unanimous vote, would be left with egg all over his face with  yet again a major defeat.

Brigham has stated the reason that he voted against the map at the commission meeting is because he did not like that a portion of District 7 was moved into District 1. Commission districts must be of approximately the same size when it comes to population, and so after every census, redistricting must occur to account for population shifts. District 1 had lost population and District 7 gained people over the past decade. So in order to bring District 1's population in line,  a precinct from District 7 was moved into District 1. At the time of the ad-hoc committee vote, that did not keep Brigham from voting with his colleagues to endorse the map. But at the commission meeting, he voted against it.

Mason contends if this was such a big issue for Brigham, then why did he vote to approve the same map a week earlier and why didn't he bring up the issue before the vote at the commission meeting?

Commissioner Joe Jackson (who did not serve on the ad-hoc committee) was very vocal in his opposition. He did not like that the new District 6 map increased the black population to just over 60%, believing that this would shift the balance of power on the commission. This sentiment was echoed by District 8 commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, stating that the consolidation charter institutionalized a 5-5 racial balance on the commission, and if District 6 swung to becoming a black district then that balance of power would be upset. (however that was disrupted with the election of Matt Aitken in 2009 to Dist 1 creating a 6- 4 white majority on the commission).

This is interesting because when Matt Aitken was elected to District 1, which is over 60% black, some people in the black community cried foul saying that was a black district and must be represented by a black candidate. They were heavily admonished for those statements as being racist. Commissioner Alvin Mason even labelled such rhetoric as "divisive." But here we have Commissioners Jackson and Guilfoyle essentially saying the same thing.. that certain districts must remain "white." Will their rhetoric similarly be derided as "divisive" by their colleagues and the media?

Where Was Deke?
As we told you previously, the reason the motion to endorse Map 3-R failed at the last commission meeting was because there was a 5-5 tie vote but no Mayor on hand to break the tie. He was on vacation. Deke says the vacation was planned months in advance of the vote, but some view the mayor's absence as too much of a coincidence and convenient, especially for a Mayor who likes to avoid controversy as much as possible. There is speculation that the Mayor purposefully skipped the meeting knowing what the outcome would be, and that this created a scenario that allowed Matt Aitken to vote along with black commissioners to endorse the map, thus giving him street cred in his district for reelection.

The Mayor dismisses this as "conspiracy theory."  It should be noted that even with the mayor's presence one of the opposing commissioners could have simply abstained to defeat the motion by denying a tie vote. This is a tactic that Jerry Brigham has used before and could have used again. It is worth noting that when black commissioners would abstain from votes to defeat a motion by default, they were heavily criticized by their white colleagues and certain members of the media.

One  question remains, why was the vote on the redistricting map placed on the agenda knowing that the mayor would be absent? Would it not have been wise to wait a couple of weeks when the Mayor was at the meeting to break a tie if necessary?

A Day Late and a Dollar Short
Now Mayor Deke is saying that he would have voted in favor of the map if he had been in town for the vote. How convenient. For some it's a little too little  too late and question why the Mayor didn't make his position on redistricting public BEFORE the vote. Now it doesn't really matter because the vote is over and likely will not be taken up by the commission again. So Deke can say he is for it now, which helps him politically with black voters, like Matt Aitken's vote was viewed as an effort to gain him brownie points in the black community.

 But when taking a position actually mattered, Deke was missing in action and no one knew where he stood because he didn't make a public statement to the media before the vote. Perhaps the Mayor's endorsement of the map could have persuaded a majority of commissioners to endorse it at the Dec. 6 commission meeting instead of it dead-locking at 5-5. Perhaps the Mayor's endorsement could have persuaded Joe Bowles to vote in favor, since he tends to be in line with the mayor's thinking. But we may never  know what could have been.

What Mason Should Do on Tuesday
It would be tempting for commissioner Mason to go on a 5 minute tirade at tomorrow's commission meeting, but that would obviously be counterproductive. There is a lot of frustration over the political theater surrounding the redistricting  vote,  not to mention the controversies over the Tee Center parking deck, the  budget vote, and  Mason's failed efforts to terminate Fred Russell. But the wise course would be to stay focused on the issue of  redistricting, and Mason has stated that's what he intends to address.

 Mason can do two things on Tuesday. First, he can call for a re-vote on the 3-R redistricting map. But he would need at least 6 votes to achieve that and seeing as 5 commissioners voted against it last time that seems unlikely to happen. However, now he can point to the statement made by Mayor Copenhaver in an email:
"If I was to vote on it, I would vote in favor of it, as it received unanimous approval by the redistricting committee."

 Mason could make the argument that since the vote previously ended in a tie that the mayor should now be given the opportunity to break the tie. That would put the opposing commissioners on the spot to then deny the mayor the opportunity to weigh in and break the tie. Or if they do agree to a re-vote, would one of the opposing commissioners then play the abstention card to deny the mayor the opportunity to break the tie? Then that commissioner would have to carry the "obstructionist" label.

 The other option would be for Mason to ask all of the commissioners who voted in favor of the redistricting map previously and the Mayor to sign a  letter of endorsement that would be forwarded to the state delegation and the US Department of Justice. It would not mean that the commission as a body officially voted to endorse the map, but rather that the 5 commissioners and the mayor would be personally endorsing it. That may have the same effect as if the the commission officially voted to endorse it. It would show that a majority on the commission (including the mayor) endorsed the map. The school board has already voted to endorse the map. This would put the 5 opposing commissioners in the position of being  the odd men out who are unwilling to compromise.

Likely Conclusion
In all likelihood the redistricting map will be approved regardless of whether it is endorsed by the commission. The state legislature ultimately has the final say with the approval  of the US Department of Justice, since Georgia is still under mandates from the 1964 Voting Rights Act. But the spectacle at the local level does some damage.

From what appeared at the beginning to be a great compromise that transcended racial lines ended up once again in a racial stalemate.This may signal to the state and DOJ that Augusta is just incapable of drawing their own redistricting maps. It also reinforces the notion that racial politics are just so ingrained here  with compromise seemingly impossible that it is necessary to keep Augusta under judicial review for many, many years to come when it comes to matters of elections and redistricting. The antics and political theater over this latest redistricting controversy does Augusta no favors.

The final solution may be for the redistricting process to be completely taken over by the state and the Feds with little or no local input. For those who were in opposition to the compromise 3-R map, a redistricting map drawn by the feds would most certainly be even less palatable, and they may be wishing they could go back and change their votes.***
If you go:
Where: Augusta-Richmond County Municipal Building, 530 Greene St, Room #803
Time:    Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011 at 5:00pm
*Public comments generally occur at the beginning of commission meetings

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1 comment:

Corey Washington said...

This article is pure unadulterated truth. Keep up the good work. The AC and Spirit should take notes!!! People are tired of the same arguments of White and Black. Why chastise one side if when given the opportunity to be the bigger person, you just go and slip back into the same charade!!!