Tuesday, December 11, 2012
By The Outsider
It has been a week since Bill Fennoy trounced incumbent Matt Aitken in the District 1 runoff on December 4. This was a reversal of fortunes from three years ago when the same two candidates met in an early December runoff for this same seat with Matt Aitken taking it with 54% of the vote. Turnout was even lower this time -- at around 19% of all registered voters-- but Fennoy still managed to win by a margin close to 700 votes. Yes, it was a rout and a clear rebuke of Aitken's performance on the commission for the past three years. Some political pundits were predicting that Aitken might squeak out another win because of the lower than expected turnout, but an analysis of the vote shows that the precincts that had the lowest overall turnout were the ones Aitken needed most to secure reelection. Bottom line is -- there was not nearly as much enthusiasm for Aitken this time around and many of the people who voted for him in 2009 simply stayed home last Tuesday.
Despite the low turnout, this was perhaps the most widely watched of all of the commission races this year. Aitken's victory 3 years ago disrupted the 5-5 racial split on the commission that existed since the beginning of consolidation, giving white commissioners a 6 to 4 majority. Many leaders in Augusta's black community said that this resulted in Augusta's black majority being politically marginalized and allowed for legislation to be rammed through with little discussion or compromise. In essence -- whomever has a 6 member voting bloc has control of the commission, and many black members of the commission felt like they had been rendered irrelevant. Now that 5-5 balance has been restored, and depending on whom you ask, that either means more gridlock on the commission or a necessity to compromise.
So what should people expect from this new commission? Some political pundits say that gridlock just might be a good thing for the Augusta Commission if it halts bad deals like the TEE Center and Parking deck and a publicly financed baseball stadium which voters have indicated they overwhelmingly oppose. So we thought it would be interesting to examine who are the big winners and losers from the results of the District 1 race. We will dispense with the obvious -- the candidates themselves -- and take a look at who else won or lost last night. Let's start off with the big losers:
Mayor Deke Copenhaver: The mayor staked a lot of his own political capital on the reelection of Matt Aitken. He openly endorsed him, appeared in slick mail outs and he even made robo calls to voters encouraging them to give Matt a second term. The clear rebuke of his candidate shows that the mayor may not be the hot commodity he once was. There was a time when having even a subtle nod from the "mandate mayor" was considered political gold -- and Deke seemed to have the Midas touch. But now it seems like the mayor's golden halo has become a little tarnished. From continuing to push the unpopular ballpark to being on the wrong side of the TEE Center debate to acquiescing on GRU, many people are starting to rethink the mayor's legacy altogether.
And what about that ballpark on which the mayor has staked most of his mayoral legacy? Well, after last Tuesday night, it's as good as dead -- at least in the form Deke has been pushing -- a taxpayer financed facility located downtown. Dr Ricardo Azziz struck a major blow to Deke's ballpark fantasies when he took control of the Golf and Gardens property earlier this year, but many political insiders tell us that Deke had not given up and was eyeing the old Post Office building downtown across from the James Brown arena. But Deke needed Matt Aitken's vote for the ballpark proposal to have any future -- and Matt had proven to be a reliable supporter of his plans. He even introduced a motion last year on the commission that would have committed the city to a public-private partnership with Ripken Baseball for construction of a new stadium. Knowing what we know from the TEE Center debacle, the term "public-private partnership" is code for "The public pays all of the costs and the private sector gets all of the benefits." Now with Matt Aitken off the commission, the mayor's hopes in getting a new ballpark approved before he leaves office in two years are crushed-- like peanut shells in the stands after the end of a double-header.
Fred Russell: Augusta's city administrator has been skating on thin ice for years, but like a monster from a cheesy horror film, he always manages to come back from the dead. Efforts to fire Russell have failed in the past, with votes typically falling along racial lines -- black commissioners voting to get rid of him and white commissioners voting to keep him. But with the new makeup of the commission, Russell's luck may have just ran out. Even commissioners who had voted to keep Russell in the past have said they have been very unhappy with his handling of the TEE Center and would likely support his firing if it were brought up again. The sticking point though has always been Russell's replacement and watch for a real fight over that if he is shown the exit, and it may happen a lot sooner than you think. So could this be a curtain call for Russell-Mania? Our Magic 8-Ball says "Most Definitely."
Queen Madge and the DDA: Another big loser after Matt Aitken's defeat is the Downtown Development Authority and its executive director Margaret Woodard. Aitken had been perhaps the biggest supporter of the DDA on the commission -- in fact, he is a product of the DDA and even announced his 2009 candidacy in front of the ill-fated Broad Street clock -- the same clock that the DDA moved to the airport against the wishes of many downtown business owners.
Retail business owners say that since the DDA has usurped more power from downtown merchants associations, that business has sharply declined and Margaret Woodard often plays favorites, steering lucrative state grants and business leads to her cronies. We predict that there will be a push to significantly curtail the power of the DDA and its executive director, and the new makeup of the commission makes that more likely. Also look for an effort to defund the DDA at the county level which would essentially eliminate the executive director's position. Queen Madge might finally be dethroned.
Mobility Transit: One of the big efforts over the past 3 years has been the privatizing of certain city amenities and services, with the most notable being the public bus system. The city contracted with an outfit named Mobility Transit and it has been a bumpy ride to say the least. There were the reports of unpaid bills and the cancellation of employee health benefits because of lack of payment by Mobility. People wondered how a company like Mobility Transit got the contract in the first place. Their track record in providing transit services in other locales seems to be non existent. Look for Mobility to get the ax in the coming year, and it's a good bet that the public bus service will go back to being an in-house operation. Also look for the new commission to put the brakes on efforts to privatize other city services and amenities like The Patch golf course.
Billy Morris & Paul Simon: Perhaps the biggest losers from last Tuesday's election were the men behind Augusta Riverfront LLC, the owner of the downtown Marriott hotel and soon-to-be managers of Augusta's new convention center (formerly known as the TEE Center). Morris and Simon have managed to get a lot from Augusta taxpayers over the years and Matt Aitken was only more than happy to give them more. When it came to managing the new parking deck and convention center, Matt Aitken was more than happy to sign away the city's rights to any profits and essentially hand over a blank check to Augusta Riverfront LLC that would allow them to loot the city's general fund. Even when other commissioners balked at the hideously bad contracts, Matt Aitken just "wanted to move forward", which is essentially code for "Just give Billy and Paul whatever they want." Well, with Matt gone from the commission at the end of the year, the taxpayer gravy train that has been chugging down Reynolds street may finally be coming to a halt.
Lori Davis: Initially a declared candidate for the District 1 seat, Lori Davis decided not to enter the race the week before qualifying. Some of her critics misconstrued this as her "giving up" out of frustration, but Davis had no intention of calling it quits. And if her critics thought she was going away, they were sadly mistaken. Instead, Davis contended, her efforts would be better used by fighting government waste and corruption on multiple fronts, and being consumed by a political campaign would have distracted from those efforts. However, Lori Davis made it clear that District 1 needed someone other than Matt Aitken, someone whom she supported 3 years ago. But things had changed and promises were broken. Davis has been fighting a six year battle to rid nuisance properties from Harrisburg and to make absentee landlords more accountable for their properties and the negative impact they have on the surrounding community.
When Matt Aitken courted Lori Davis' support in the 2009 run-off, he promised to support a Chronic Nuisance Property Ordinance (CNPO) and even said he would ask the state legislative delegation to introduce a bill in Atlanta to enable communities to draft effective CNPOs. Those promises were never kept, and once Aitken got on the commission, Davis says that phone calls and emails to Aitken were rarely returned. Instead, Aitken was focused on things like a riverfront ballpark, the TEE Center and further enabling the DDA. So this time around, Davis threw her support behind Bill Fennoy, even appearing in television ads for him. We believe that Fennoy's trouncing of Aitken last Tuesday was in no small part due to the endorsement from Davis. One lesson that should come out of this is: Do not underestimate Lori Davis. We suspect that this new commission will be more amenable to the drafting of a sound CNPO and we would not be surprised to see Lori Davis have a seat on one of the local boards that could make this happen.
Commissioner Bill Lockett: With the commission now returning to a 5-5 balance, it's safe to say that there will be a whole new dynamic at play after the new year, and with that, there will be the need for new leadership from both factions in order for anything to advance in the commission. We see two clear leaders emerging under this new paradigm, and one of them is Commissioner Bill Lockett. As one of the more senior members of the commission and one of the most educated, Lockett dives right into the details on most issues. Lockett come prepared to ask tough questions and never takes anything at face value and always wants to see it "in writing." Some political observers say that with Marion Williams coming back to the commission, Lockett will be overshadowed. We do not agree with that assessment. In fact, we predict that Lockett's presence will temper Williams to a great degree. Lockett will prepare him and other commissioners with relevant information before meetings so that they can ask pertinent questions. We suspect the other commissioners will defer to Lockett's experience and his attention to detail on complicated issues.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle: Though he endorsed Matt Aitken in the run-off, Guilfoyle now stands to become one of the most powerful men on the commission. Though most political observers like to say the commission is now split 5-5 along racial lines, others point out that it's actually 5-4-1. You see, Wayne Guilfoyle is actually of mixed race -- half white and half Asian. Though Guilfoyle typically caucuses with the white members of the commission since being elected two years ago, he has routinely shown an independent streak, often being a swing vote. And the fact that his voting pattern tends to be unpredictable will make him perhaps the most powerful member of the commission after January 1st. Being of mixed race, Guilfoyle can refuse to play the white vs black dynamic and in the process he can become the main power broker on the commission. For anything to pass on the commission, it needs six votes, and now, no one faction has that majority. We suspect that Wayne Guilfoyle's phone will be ringing a lot this next year, and with Bowles gone from the commission, expect to see a lot more of Wayne Guilfole on the evening news. Also watch for Guilfoyle to bring more attention to issues of importance to South Augusta in the coming year.
South Augusta: With Commissioners Guilfoyle and Lockett gaining more prominence on the commission, look for South Augusta to be more in the spotlight. Both commissioners represent districts that encompass the southside. The new dynamic has shifted power away from the downtown power brokers and out towards South Augusta. Expect to see movement on reforming Augusta's tax code, how trash pick up is handled and billed to South Augusta, and revitalization efforts for inner south Augusta neighborhoods like the Gordon Highway corridor and Deans Bridge Rd.
Small Downtown Business Owners: With South Augusta gaining more prominence politically after this election, it might seem counter intuitive to include downtown small business owners in the winners column. Quite the contrary! As mentioned earlier, one of the ramifications of last week's election is that the power of the Downtown Development Authority has been significantly weakened, and that puts small business owners in the downtown core in a stronger position than ever. Just yesterday, the DDA and its executive director Margaret Woodard were put in the hot seat over the renewal of the BID (Business Improvement District). Mike Walraven, a small business owner downtown, spoke out against renewal of the BID and its companion CADI program, calling it "another tax". Commissioners grilled Woodard on how the program was misrepresented to downtown property owners and the undemocratic way the Board of Directors for the BID was installed. Look for downtown business owners to have a greater role now in the future direction of the central business district, instead of it being monopolized by the DDA and their cronies.
Bus Riders: Augusta has long been plagued by a less than adequate public transit system, but it has not always been this bad. There was a time when there were actually bus stops on Broad Street in the heart of downtown. Now, the closest you can get is the awkwardly located bus transfer station west of 15th street. People who depend on the bus -- often the poor, disabled and elderly -- have long complained of long waits, unpredictable schedules and a lack of routes to places people need to go. Downtown business owners say that since the busses were removed from downtown, retail has suffered and it has become harder for them to attract workers who rely on public transit. Bill Fennoy made improving public transit a central theme of his campaign, and we suspect there may now be the political will to actually make it happen. This may involve building new partnerships with the new merged university and downtown business owners to help pay for expanded bus service in the city's urban core -- where it is most needed. Also, look for efforts to improve service in South Augusta and out to business centers like The Augusta Mall and The Augusta Exchange. We expect one of the first things commissioners might do in January is take one of those "Magical Mystery Tours" on a city bus to get a sense of how the transit system can be improved... but this time they ought to ride it like the average daily user does.. with delays and all. ***
Stay Tuned: More to Come