Overstreet dismisses Merry lawsuit, elucidates abstention law

Superior Court Judge Carlisle Overstreet has dismissed a lawsuit against Augusta commissioners, the mayor and the government.

Government watchdog Woody Merry filed that lawsuit in February after he says commissioner Marion Williams was abstaining from voting to prevent the mayor from breaking tie votes.

According to the judge, Commissioner Williams can abstain based on the city's consolidated charter.

However, according to rules and procedure, mayor Deke Copenhaver can decide how to count that abstention.

Government watchdog Woody Merry rushed to the office of his lawyer, Joe Neal, Jr., after learning Judge Carlisle Overstreet filed his ruling in Superior Court on their case.

Even though their lawsuit reads “denied” and “dismissed” in bold black and white, they claim a victory.

"We got everything we asked for,” Merry says. “They are going to have to vote again for Mayor Pro-Tem, they are going to have to follow Robert's Rules of Order."

It all stems from Commissioner Marion Williams’ abstaining two times from voting for mayor pro-tem at the first Commission meeting of the year.

Weeks after that meeting, Woody Merry and his attorney Joe Neal, Jr. filed a lawsuit.

Initially it was against Commissioner Williams.

Later they added every commissioner, the mayor, and the entire consolidated government.

"All I want them to do is follow the law,” says Merry.

But according to the ruling, Commissioner Marion Williams can abstain...and he is properly holding the mayor pro-tem office.

The ruling does suggest that abstentions could be changed and that the mayor has the power to do so.

"These are the Richmond County Rules and Procedure and they have been for 10 years--unfortunately the mayors of Augusta, I guess they just didn't know they had this power,” says Neal.

The vote for mayor pro-tem has been deadlocked for over 2 months--commissioners voting along racial lines, Marion Williams abstaining and preventing the Mayor from breaking a tie vote--but this order puts the ball back into the mayor's court, giving him the option to take an abstention and make it a yes or no vote.

“I have to tell you once again it is situationally-based,” says Mayor Copenhaver. “I would have to wait until I was given that opportunity. But I will tell you I would do the wise and the right things given that situation."

"Now it is in the Mayor's hands whether he is going to exercise the power he has and I hope to God he does,” Neal says.

But Commissioner Marion Williams says he may still choose to abstain, and disagrees that the mayor should have discretion.

"That's an abstention and that's what it is so I disagree that the Mayor has the right to do that. He may try that and I think the commission will challenge him if he did,” Williams says.

If the mayor does change an abstention to a yes or no vote, that ruling can be overturned by a majority vote from commissioners.

As for today's ruling, Woody Merry does not plan to appeal, although he has mentioned an appeal in the past.

Here's the timeline on how we got to where we are.

At the first commission meeting of the year, January 3, commissioner and mayor pro-tem Marion Williams abstains from voting for a new mayor pro-tem.

That abstention prevented the mayor from breaking a tie vote.

January 25: Government watchdog Woody Merry and attorney Joe Neal, Jr. file a lawsuit against Marion Williams for holding up city government.

February 2: Commissioner Marion Williams gives a deposition in Joe Neal, Jr.’s office.

February 8: the lawsuit expands to include evry commissioner, the mayor, and the government...

February 17: The commission appears in court.

February 22: Written arguments are submitted.

Just yesterday more briefs were filed, and today Judge Carisle Overstreet denied and dismissed Merry's lawsuit,mentioning that the mayor has the power to change an abstention to a yes or no vote.

The court notes that although Commissioner Marion Williams is validly holding the position of mayor pro-tem, this holdover is only allowed for a reasonable amount of time.

A reasonable amount of time was not specified in the ruling.