Only on 12: Commissioners go to Supreme Court on taxpayers' dime

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September 8, 2006

The city of Augusta is headed to the highest court in Georgia...but the battle over voting is costing you a pretty penny, with some commissioners hiring personal lawyers on your dime.

The date has been set: October 16 is when Augusta commissioners and the mayor will appear before the Georgia Supreme Court.

This comes after an appeal in the case brought by Woody Merry over voting abstentions.

Only on 12, News 12's Jonathan Martin tells us how much this trip back to court could cost you.

Back in February, thousands of your tax dollars paid for all of the legal fees when the case was heard in superior court, and this time, it will likely come at an even higher price.

Can Augusta commissioners abstain from voting? Now the Supreme Court of Georgia will answer that question.

They're set to hear the case from local government watchdog Woody Merry and his attorney Joe Neal.

"We want a ruling saying you cannot abstain for any reason; you have to have a financial conflict of interest," Neal told News 12.

Judge Carlisle Overstreet ruled back in February that commissioners can legally abstain.

But Merry appealed that ruling in April, claiming it was leading to more abstentions and even walkouts.

"We've had 56 abstentions since then," Merry told News 12. "Jonathan, if you walked out of Channel 12, you'd be fired."

"[Commissioners] are hired, paid employees. They're elected, but they're paid a salary to be there."

Marion Williams is the fuel behind the fire in Merry's lawsuit. It was his abstention that kept the mayor from breaking a tie vote for a mayor pro-tem.

But Williams says until he hears otherwise, he'll continue abstaining.

"I have a right to abstain if I feel that's what I need to do," he said.

But like before, your tax dollars will pay for this to be sorted out.

Last time, city attorney Steve Shepard got $20,000 to work on this case, and Commissioner Holland and Hatney's attorney, Ben Allen, got $7000.

You can expect a higher fee with the case going to a higher court, costing you and a city already in a budget bind.

"It is taxpayer dollars that are being used to cover these things," Mayor Deke Copenhaver told News 12. "Anything that affects our bottom line does concern me. "

Commissioners Calvin Holland and Marion Williams both say they plan to keep their personal attorneys.