They haven’t held the seat, but five men seeking to replace Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis spoke out about how they’d manage mayor’s office perks.
Prevented by term limits from a third run for mayor, Davis’ heavy use of his city credit card recently prompted the Augusta Commission to develop a policy for its use where none existed before but most members refused to discuss or audit the charges.
Since he took office in 2015, Davis has grown the office budget by 70% and staff by two or three and added an SUV to its resources, all with commission approval.
Charlie Hannah, currently president of Richmond County Board of Education, said his work in the school system has taught him to expect scrutiny and avoid “ambiguity” in his use of taxpayer dollars. School board members don’t get credit cards or vehicles to use.
“First and foremost, I’m not going to criticize anybody, but (credit card spending) should be accounted for every month to make sure that everything is above board,” Hannah said.
“As far as being a public servant, anything that’s ambiguous will work against you. Things do come up when a credit card may be necessary, but for the most part, as in working for the school board, any transaction that we make is highly scrutinized. You never want to give the impression that something is not right,” he said.
Hannah said supporters recently asked him about “the decal,” the city logo sticker that Davis has declined to affix to his city-issued Chevy Tahoe, citing security concerns. State law that’s intended to prevent personal use requires an annual public hearing when an official such as a mayor wants to drive an unmarked vehicle.
Hannah said he will use the vehicle and affix the decal, but not let it become a distraction.
“I would be driving the vehicle when I’m conducting city business – actually I have enough pride in my city that I don’t have any issues with displaying the City of Augusta on it,” he said. “I can deal with a small decal, but at the end of the day, I’m not going to let the decal be a distraction from my duties.”
Another of at least three sitting elected officials running for mayor, Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick said mayors do sometimes need credit cards and vehicles but must use them in a “measured and thoughtful” manner.
“There are times when as the lead official there are things that you need to do” with a car or card, he said. “I think it’s a lot more times than we often know.”
Kendrick said he agrees with the public seeking transparency about how credit card and other resources are used. Outcry about Davis’ card use came from the public after media reports about unexplained or little-explained purchases and money transfers.
“I’m not passing judgment on what his were for, either, not knowing what they all were for,” Kendrick said. “But I think it’s OK for the community to ask for appropriate use, and to ask its leaders to discuss how they’re using the money that they’re giving him.”
A vehicle is “totally necessary” and “pretty customary” for a city the size of Augusta, he said, while Davis’ argument against marking the car has merit, Kendrick said.
“I don’t have a problem with the decal, but I clearly understand the mayor not wanting a decal. As the lead official, he is targeted for things that people are not happy about,” he said. While his tax commissioner vehicle and those of his staff are all clearly marked, elected officials do sometimes take measures to conceal identifying information, such as “remove their names from their property.”
Driving a marked vehicle does and has given members of the public “opportunities to engage at a time that’s not appropriate,” Kendrick said, and “some of those encounters are not always nice.”
As a sitting commissioner and mayoral hopeful, Commissioner Dennis Williams would have had the most recent firsthand experience with the mayor’s use of the city perks. But Williams opposed the audit, saying he’d seen no evidence of wrongdoing and didn’t want to cast a cloud over city staff. He’s also a retired Veterans Administration bureaucrat, experienced with documenting public spending.
“I have a large amount of experience dealing with government credit cards and government control points. I’d probably be a little more detailed,” Williams said. “You have to use good judgment. The mayor is going to have the opportunity to justify any charges that he made.”
A former NAACP branch president, Williams said he’ll use the Tahoe and doesn’t mind a decal but knows security is a real concern.
“It wouldn’t make any difference to me one way or the other, if (the decal) was on there, or if it was off,” he said, although “someone could see the logo, and they may do something to harm the mayor. Since I’ve been elected, I take security very seriously.”
Former commission candidate Brian Marcus, a lesser-known candidate for mayor, said he personally doesn’t have a credit card because of his credit score and was unsure how he’d use the mayor’s card.
“Knowing me, I probably wouldn’t use it,” Marcus said, while Davis “knows very well what he’s doing and misusing the city’s money.” He’d use the vehicle, but the car and card “should only be used for government business,” Marcus said.
Former commissioner Marion Williams, who has served two sets of two terms, has lots of experience observing city spending and use of credit cards. The car and motorcycle enthusiast also made waves with his heavy use of city gas cards, which are no longer issued to commissioners.
The gas card, which had a gallon limit, “was commission-approved,” he said. “I probably used more than anybody else, but I worked hard. I served the people.”
Williams said he recalled a former mayor wanting a flashing blue light on his car, a used sedan, and an airport director refusing to affix a decal to his vehicle.
The director stuck a magnetized logo on the vehicle instead. “I turned the decal upside down and took a photo of it,” Williams said. “The rules said that all city vehicles are supposed to be white in color and has to have a seal on it.”
A number of Davis’ credit card charges appear associated with travel, and Williams said he supports the mayor as well as commissioners traveling to conferences and to other cities, to bring ideas back to Augusta.
“He needs to travel. If you don’t go, you don’t grow,” Williams said, using a favorite catch-phrase.
At those conferences and training classes, elected officials are given in-depth training on respecting taxpayer dollars, he said.
“When you’re talking about taxpayers’ money, you’re not talking about your money or my money, you’re talking about taxpayers’ money, and you’re held accountable,” he said. “When you go to the training, that’s the first thing they tell you.”
So, a city official “ought to know what the rules are,” Williams said. “This don’t pass the smell test to me. If you’re talking about the city giving you a charge card and you can just do?”
Williams recalled a time when city recreation and parks staffers obtained Sam’s cards, then changed their billing address to a post office box so someone could pay the bill with a check, instead of it going through city accounts payable.
Williams said he supports the call for a forensic audit, if only to set the record straight and present a level playing field.
“I think there ought to be a forensic audit to make sure everything is straight. If you don’t inspect what you expect, how do you know everything has been done right?”