Water, Gas & Light in Albany
ALBANY, Ga. — The Water, Gas & Light Commission here may inevitably be reaffirmed as a proper department of the city, but if Tuesday night's first-reading discussion and vote on the matter by the Albany City Commission is any indication, it won't happen easily.
The commission voted 4-3 to change the city charter to reaffirm WG&L as a city department with responsibility for hiring and firing of the utility's general manager the authority of the city manager. A second vote on the change must be completed at a subsequent commission meeting before it becomes law.
"This just took a lot of me tonight," an exhausted Mayor Dorothy Hubbard, who also serves as chair of the WG&L Board, said after the contentious discussion that was part of a three-hour-plus meeting. "I'm ready to go home now and collapse.
"There are issues that I could have brought up about some of the things that were discussed, but I did my best to try and keep this from becoming personal."
Hubbard at one point did chide certain of her colleagues who had complained about the management practices of the utility.
"There's enough blame on this issue for everyone," she said after listening to commissioners' comments. "I wasn't going to get into this, but the fact is y'all sat around and complained about this (in the past) and I listened, but we all did nothing."
Ward IV Commissioner Roger Marietta started the discussion by commenting, "Before we vote on this, I'd like to note that the current (WG&L) structure is working."
Ward VI Commissioner Tommie Postell, who has long sparred with utility officials for operating separately from the city, countered Marietta's statement.
"(The charter change) is a vehicle we need so we don't have to beg for information (from WG&L)," Postell said. "What they're doing over there is not working."
When Hubbard said appointed WG&L Board members deserved more trust from the commission, Ward III Commissioner Christopher Pike replied, "My vote is not a reflection of the current commission over there, it's to correct 30 years of stuff that's gone wrong."
Marietta then said, "The next time rates go up in the city, and they will go up again at some time, the citizens are not going to blame Water, Gas & Light. They're going to blame this commission that wanted more control."
Ward IV Commissioner Bob Langstaff, an attorney, entered the fray with argument that grew increasingly impassioned. He ended his discussion with a discussion of WG&L's radio system.
"Do you know what kind of radio system they have over there?" he asked Hubbard, who acknowledged that she did not. "Well, I know. Back when we spent $6 million in SPLOST funds to upgrade the city's radio system, procurement asked WG&L if they wanted the same Motorola radios we were getting. They said no and refused to discuss it.
"As soon as we bought our system, they went to Americus and bought a Kenwood system. Now, do you know what other cities and counties located on our radio system? The city of Thomasville did, and Lee County and Crisp County. So if a tornado hits and power lines are down in Thomasville, Leesburg and Cordele, we'll know about it. But unless our first responders get a phone call, they won't know because they can't communicate with Water, Gas & Light."
Postell called WG&L's operation "cancerous."
"This has been going on traditionally down through the years," he said, turning to Hubbard. "You're not going to be over there but four or eight years ..."
An exasperated Hubbard replied, "You got that right."
Postell continued: "All this buddy, buddy, buddy and going off to some retreat eating cold chicken and drinking warm tea don't get it with me."
Tuesday's meeting was destined to be a long one as a number of Northwest Albany citizens lined up to speak out against developer Danny Blackshear's proposed single-family, townhouse and apartment development off Old Dawson Road. More than a half-dozen residents got up to speak against the development, most complaining about the effects the development would have on surrounding property values and already heavy traffic on Old Dawson.
Comments ranged from simple requests urging the commission to require a second entry/exit road onto the property to notification of petitions opposing the development to long statements about the land use map.
"Please consider our neighborhoods and the lack of a need for new construction," Ellen White said before the commission voted to table action on the zoning request for a month.
Postell suggested tabling the matter, saying, "I don't want to be rushed, I don't want to be led and I don't want to be misled."
The commission voted to amend city code so that the director of the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport will now report directly to the city manager, and after a lengthy discussion in the briefing that preceded the meeting, voted 5-2 to approve $500,000 in department of Housing and Urban Development HOME funding for the AME Bethel Housing LP CHODO to refurbish a 98-unit apartment complex on Swift Street.
Langstaff, who'd said in the prebriefing he had questions about the cost of the project ($10.6 million), asked to table the matter, but his motion was voted down 5-2. The commission approved the funding by the same vote.
"At the end of the day, this is about the CHODO," Pike said after some commissioners said during the prebriefing that they'd received emails and calls from citizens concerned about the funding. "We all know the political implications in this city. I feel comfortable enough about the project not to lose a half-million dollars over saving face from some emails we've gotten."
Ward II Commissioner Ivey Hines also supported the measure, saying, "I don't understand the concern. This is a half-million dollars in a $10 million project that will become an eyesore if we don't revitalize it. And it's not like Bethel doesn't have skin in the game, so to speak. They're investing an amount equal to what we are."
The commission also authorized Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax VI funds to construct a new fire station in East Albany to replace one built over a sinkhole and to upgrade the city's 911 center.