Thursday, March 15, 2012

Augusta Commission District 7 Race Will Be One to Watch

Thursday, March 15, 2012
Augusta, GA
By The Outsider

So far, two candidates have announced to run for the District 7 Augusta Commission seat being vacated by Jerry Brigham: Seasoned former school board member and retired GHSU administrator Kenneth Echols and local political neophyte and state trooper Donnie Smith. At a forum hosted by the Committee for Good Government this past Tuesday night at Julian Smith casino, both candidates had an opportunity to introduce themselves and make the case as to why they would be the best representative for District 7.

Echols is no stranger to the politics of District 7; he represented it for 3 terms on the school board. He cited his experience on the school board and his career at GHSU (formerly MCG) and overseeing large budgets. He also alluded that his relationship with GHSU would provide valuable experience on the commission, especially as GHSU and ASU begin a merger.

The relationship between the city and GHSU has had some tension recently with the city negotiating a behind-closed-door sale of city-owned property that served as a bus washing facility to developers wanting to build a Wal-Mart grocery store.  The MCG Foundation claims they were left in the dark and previously made offers for the property valued twice as what Wal-Mart was offering. Dr. Ricardo Azziz, president of GHSU even threatened legal action against the city over the land deal.

Echols could certainly be able to make the case that the commission needs to open better lines of communication with GHSU, and his relationship with the university could provide that.

Echols also cited a record of being a strong fiscal conservative who would go after waste in government. In particular he zeroed in on the TEE Center debacle and a $836,288 change order that was just recently sprung on commissioners despite the city administrator knowing about it for months. Echols said: "To have errors like that is personally inexcusable.” This is quite a different tone on the TEE Center  than what we have heard from current District 7 commissioner Jerry Brigham, who has instead often criticized those who have been asking the questions over waste and improprieties over land deals involved with the taxpayer financed project. Brigham has voted consistently to move the project along uncritical of the many  irregularities and the waste associated with it. It appears Echols would take a different approach and would ask tougher questions. It appears that Echols would be more in alignment with government watch-dogs and reformers like Lori Davis.

State Trooper Donnie Smith did not address the TEE Center debacle at Tuesday's forum, instead speaking in broad platitudes straight out of Mayor Deke's political playbook such as "ending the city's racial divide." However, he gave no specifics on how to achieve that. Smith also uttered a rather peculiar statement: "I love Augusta. I love everything about it, even the things that make us bad.  So is Donnie Smith saying that he loves the political corruption, back-room deals, and wasteful spending that has plagued the city over the years? It's one thing to love your city, but that shouldn't mean having to put up with the "things that make us look bad." It certainly sounds to us that Smith sounds a lot like Deke and his acolytes... more concerned with keeping up appearances than in fixing what is broken with city government.

But his tone does not surprise us. We have been hearing from multiple sources that Donnie Smith is being backed by key members of The Cabal. Though commissioner Jerry Brigham has not formally endorsed either candidate, we have been hearing that Brigham is backing Smith behind the scenes. And that may explain why Smith seems to be parroting one of Brigham's key issues: redistricting.

At Tuesday's forum, Smith described himself as a "warrior" fighting the redistricting map that was unanimously approved by an ad-hoc committee that included Commissioner Jerry Brigham. Despite voting for the map in committee, Brigham turned against it and is trying to start the process over with a new map in the state legislature. Donnie Smith says that he is against portions of District 7 being moved into District 1 and it seems to be his primary issue. But for a candidate who has also cited "ending the racial divide," as a primary campaign theme, his tough stance on redistricting may very well put him at odds with many members of Augusta's black community, who see the struggle over redistricting as a concerted effort to deny the county's black majority from attaining a political majority on the commission.

Sources are also telling us that Smith is getting behind-the-scenes support from Mayor Deke Copenhaver and Clay Boardman. Though it appears efforts to build a downtown ballpark at the former Golf and Gardens site have been squelched by Dr. Ricardo Azziz and his plans for GHSU/ASU expansion, there is an  effort afoot to build a new ballpark in District 7 at the Villages at Riverwatch property, and they will need a yes vote in district 7 to make that happen, and it is believed Smith will be that 'yes" vote. Well Smith, certainly did seem to echo a lot of the vague political buzz phrases employed by Deke, so there certainly could be something to it all. Perhaps Donnie Smith his getting coaching from the same political consultants who put Deke in office. District 7 will certainly be a race to watch this year.***

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