RICHARD HYATT: They just don't seem to understand

June 13, 2013 

It's a good thing people don't expect local officials to make beautiful music for they are politically tone deaf.

That was evident this week when members of the Muscogee County School Board and Columbus Council again hit some sour notes.

It started at Monday's school board meeting. In a season of slicing and dicing that has closed two schools, shut down a special-education program, put surplus real estate up for sale, and threatens the jobs of 20 teachers, the board discussed a proposal that would let them stay in nice hotels and enjoy expensive meals and a contract that will pay their part-time superintendent nearly $10,000 a month.

On Tuesday, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said the sky is falling and warned that budget problems could cause severe layoffs, and council voted to spend $42,000 on furniture for a facility where citizens will take their recyclables.

Discussion was limited when the school board talked about a travel budget that would pave the way for junkets to conventions and conferences that no one requires them to attend.

"Are you kidding?" board member Cathy Williams asked. She questioned taking what she called taxpayer-funded vacations.

John Wells disagreed. "I think it's money well spent," he said. "We do good for this community."

WRBL has reported that $29,000 was allocated for board travel last year and that seven members and one low-level administrator took seven trips. To date, the board has spent $21,166.34.

The big ticket was a trip to San Diego where interim Superintendent John Phillips and five members spent $11,600, including a group dinner at Greystone the Steakhouse, a posh spot in the Gaslamp Quarter where meals cost $131 a head.

On Tuesday, only three councilors understood that it was about more than tables and chairs when City Manager Isaiah Hugley, for the fifth time, asked for new furniture for the recycling facility.

Councilor Judy Thomas objected, and pointed out that with offices moving into the City Service Center surplus furnishings would be left behind and that good pieces could go to the recycling facility.

Hugley seemed deaf to her ideas, and Thomas said he "didn't look very hard." But he did cut $3,000 from his original request and finally emerged with a 6-3 vote.

In the grand scheme of things, these items are mere pittance. But in a climate of sacrifice and restraints, officials showed they just don't get it when it comes to dealing with their constituents or their employees.

The idea that Hugley is out shopping while the mayor threatens people's jobs and bickers with law enforcement over budgets is insensitive. So is the school board going to Savannah for a conference while training for classroom teachers is put on hold.

In the words of Cathy Williams: "Are you kidding?"

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at www.twitter.com/hyattrichard.

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