Irreconcilable differences?: Funding issues, 'Type A personalities' at forefront of ongoing feud between Columbus and Lowndes County leadership

September 1, 2018 10:02:39 PM

Zack Plair - [email protected]


Harry Sanders drives down Military Road late Friday morning on the route he takes into Columbus most days from his home near Caledonia. 


From the driver's seat of his red pickup, he starts pointing out toward street-side gutters and rights-of-way grown up in grass -- all of which are the city's responsibility to maintain. 


"It's frustrating to me to ride into town every day and see this," Sanders says. "All it takes to fix it is a guy in a golf cart with some Round-Up." 


He briefly puts his right hand back on the steering wheel, but abruptly points out with it again. 


"See that's the city, too," he says, as he spots a shrub growing through a drainage hole in one of the gutters. "And this is one of the main roads in the city. What does that say about us when we have executives in town from Paccar, or some other company, and they see this?" 


As president of the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors, Sanders doesn't have any direct authority over city operations, though his many opinions of how Columbus operates are well documented and often harsh. 


For city officials, namely Mayor Robert Smith, Sanders' opinions -- especially the way he expresses them -- are unwelcome, with more than one city authority proclaiming some version of "Let Harry run the county, and let us worry about the city," when the supervisor's name is mentioned. 


On the other hand, Sanders views city operations as "inefficient" and "incompetent." He also regards Smith as "a bully." 


In just the past year, the rift between the two men who stand at the heads of their respective government is blamed for aiding increasingly caustic relations between the city and county. And the casualties from their very public bickering are mounting. 


The once joint Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority is gone, replaced by separate city and county agencies. A bitter, months-long battle over how to divide the countywide 2-percent restaurant sales tax arguably influenced the Legislature's unwillingness to renew it -- causing the tax to expire and leaving the future of county tourism efforts in limbo until 2019. 


More recently, a dispute over whether the county would help fund city parks bled over into a county effort to raise the fee it charges to collect city property taxes. After that, the city council voted to pull its funding from the Golden Triangle Development LINK, the organization tasked with economic development recruitment for the entire Golden Triangle area, leaving the county to pay the $100,000 to the organization that had been the city's annual share for the last decade. 


The latest "political football" in the growing city-county beef is a county threat to reduce funding for the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library by $91,500 annually unless the city vastly raises its contribution. 


"In all my years doing this, I've never seen the relationship between the city and county governments so bad," said Leroy Brooks, who has served as District 5 supervisor for 35 years. "We emotionalize these issues, and honestly, the citizens aren't interested in this gridlock. ... There's got to be some kind of intervention." 




A history of ambiguous agreements 


Most of the arguments center on money, mainly whether the county or city is "reneging" on obligations that often are as ambiguous as they are controversial. 


The flashpoint was the CLRA split, which Sanders said came after years of the county paying well more than half the costs to run the organization. Most of the two entities' arguments after that involved money for recreation -- whether the restaurant tax would dedicate money for parks or whether the county would make good on a resolution from December 2017 to allocate $600,000 over three years to help fund city recreation. 


The latter of those two issues brought an ugly confrontation last month to a board of supervisors meeting, in which Columbus Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong accused county leaders of playing "petty politics," and supervisors ultimately allocated one-third of the $600,000 with no promise of ever giving Columbus the rest. 


Other joint agreements, like the library, started off as 50-50, even though that was not specifically expressed in the contract. Over time, with CLRA and the library, the city kept its contribution roughly the same, while the county -- with a strong industrial tax base that provides it more financial resources than the city -- increased its amount based on need. 


City councilmen, like Ward 6's Bill Gavin and Ward 5's Stephen Jones, say 50-50 isn't always fair to the city because city residents also pay county taxes, while county residents don't always pay city taxes. Also, nearly two-thirds of county residents live outside the city limits, meaning the county has a greater stake in these investments. 


"You have to look at it and ask 'What's fair?'" Jones said. "If the city has 40 percent of the people using something, and the county 60 percent, the agreement should reflect that. It all should be broken down by representation." 


Sanders said that attitude lends to a sense of "entitlement" he believes the city shows by being a "parasite" to the county -- and the difference between the county's "long view" for the future and the city's "get the money right now" philosophy.  


The CLRA split, he said, represented the beginning of the county's unwillingness to continue to pay part of the city's share for their joint obligations. 


"They don't want me talking about what the city should be doing, well, the city is part of the county. If they can use that excuse, why can't we?" Sanders said. "They need to look at themselves instead of blaming us for everything. And they need to be saying 'thank you' to us for paying part of their share for so long instead of bitching at us." 


Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens, serving his third term, said he sees Sanders' point. 


"We've been looking too long at how much more money the county has than we do," he said. "We shouldn't look to the county for support. We have to stand on our own." 




Two 'strong-willed' leaders 


At the center of the gridlock stand two leaders -- of different backgrounds and very different political philosophies -- both of whom are driven by, in the words of several sources who spoke for this article, "Type A personalities." 


Conflicts of those personalities and their politics often fuel the ratcheting of negative rhetoric in city/county discourse, those sources said. 


Smith, a Democrat, is a retired educator who came into politics as councilman for Ward 1 in 2001. He became mayor in 2006. 


Sanders is a retired businessman and fiscally conservative Republican who joined the board of supervisors in the mid-1990s. 


"I think both of those men are intelligent, articulate people who are trying to do what's in the best interest of either the city or county," said a county official who often works with both entities but asked not to be identified. "I think the mayor is trying to do whatever he can to make the city thrive. And I believe Harry is the most financially savvy supervisor we've ever had. 


"The problem is neither side wants the other one to get the upper hand," he added. 


The two men bent on holding their ground, Brooks said, has garnered enough attention in public view. Behind closed doors, it's worse. 


"Sometimes, when (Sanders) and the mayor get into the same room, it just goes to another level," Brooks, who has witnessed many of these confrontations, told The Dispatch. "... When an issue rises to the level of Harry and Robert needing to meet, you can expect 'Bam!' Because it doesn't take but a little bit." 


Both Jones and Mickens said they see both entities, at times, as inflexible and unwilling to work together, which they believe is hurting the public. 


"I think we allow our egos to get in the way sometimes," Mickens said. "I think that starts at the top with the mayor and president of the supervisors. ... We've always had disagreements in the past. We just have always seemed to work out our differences, eventually." 




A trust deficit 


Brooks is plenty familiar with forging a productive relationship with Sanders by fire. 


By the time Sanders joined the Board of Supervisors, Brooks had already served three terms. Brooks, also a Democrat, stood very much at odds with Sanders politically, and it showed. 


"I've certainly had my bare-knuckle rounds with Harry over the years," Brooks said. "... In my worst times with Harry, there were moments I felt like I could literally take him, beat him to a pulp with my fists and feel good about it. I felt a total dislike for him." 


The two men "got through it," however, for two reasons: mutual respect, even when they disagreed, and both coming to understand their battling didn't always help the public. 


"When I look back at all those fights (with Harry), what did we win? What we did was we split up the community, people took sides, and now we look back and wonder what it was all about. ... I don't have a trophy in my office for fighting Harry." 


Sanders remembers his early days in office similarly. Though he still disagrees often with Brooks on policy issues -- mainly how the county needs to spend its money -- he said he's never really taken issue with Brooks as a person. He even admits some of his fighting with Brooks back then was a show for the voters. 


"Honestly, I think sometimes we were both pandering to our constituency a little bit," Sanders recalled. "Look, Leroy is smart, articulate and mostly honest. He's able to see other people's points of view." 


Sanders does not feel the same way about the mayor, and it's created a trust deficit between the two men. 


"I think Robert's just looking after Robert, to tell you the truth," Sanders said. "In public, Robert is a good-natured, get-along type guy. But behind closed doors, he's a bully who tries to intimidate you. He's gotten in my face three or four times when we've been discussing issues. I'm not going to let somebody extort me or threaten me. 


"... People are saying this is the worst city and county relations have ever been," he added. "Well, it's been like that since Robert Smith started bullying people." 


Smith admits he's stubborn, at times, but he doesn't see himself as unwilling to budge. In fact, he said he's often the one between he and Sanders willing to facilitate discussions of compromise. 


When the county wanted to dissolve the CLRA, for example, he helped orchestrate joint meetings between city and county leaders to help keep the organization together, to no avail. Again, when the two entities disagreed on how to divide 2-percent restaurant sales tax funds, Smith said it was the city that promoted a joint meeting to find a resolution -- though the session didn't produce one. 


"What is the definition of a bully?" Smith asked, speaking to The Dispatch. "Some people, when they don't get what they want, then they call you a bully. ... I would say, if anything, one (of us) is just as guilty as the other. 


"And the way I look at it, I can work with anybody," he added. "But you need to treat me the way you want to be treated." 




Ratcheted rhetoric and racial overtones 


Sanders, who is white, has referred publicly to city officials as "a bunch of crooks," and says the city is "broke." 


He's more than once referred to parts of the city as "the hood" and told The Dispatch during an interview last year that "everything the city touches is f***** up and gone to hell." 


He talks of "the wealth" being in the county and trends toward an "us versus them" tone with his rhetoric. In an interview with The Dispatch in August, he explicitly mentioned how the city shouldn't get in a "pissing contest" with the county because "the county can piss farther and for a lot longer." He added, "In the end, we'll win." 


One city employee, a white gentleman who did not want to be identified, said not only does that kind of talk irritate the other personalities in the situation, it reveals a greater problem with the county psyche. 


"I believe a lot of it is racially motivated," the city employee said. "And I'm saying I can feel that, even as a white man working here. Just think how a black person must feel. 


"That's just a damn shame in this day and age," he added. "Before anything can be resolved, I think there has to be a change in attitude on the county side." 


The city population and its leadership (the mayor and two-thirds of the council) are, indeed, majority black. Conversely, outside the city limits, a decided majority of residents is white, as are three of the five elected supervisors. 


For Brooks, a black supervisor who lives in the city and whose constituents are mostly black, he understands the resentment toward Sanders' attitude, though he doesn't necessarily believe his fellow supervisor intends to come across as racist. 


"I think Harry is the most astute business person I've ever served with," Brooks said. "He doesn't do very good as far as working with people, sometimes. He doesn't filter his words. That's just who he is. But Harry doesn't need to keep saying things that piss folks off.  


"I'm used to it, but he has to understand that some things, whether he means it or not, take on a racial overtone," he added. "I think that's the part he hasn't figured out. The public I'm around the most, the way they see that is as a venomous white man talking down to a black man. And they resent it." 


Sanders doesn't deny saying "things I shouldn't." He doesn't even back away from the notion some people could easily take his comments as racially charged, though he insists they aren't meant as such. 


"I'm talking about incompetence," he said. "It has nothing to do with race. ... I used to say things in a more 'politically correct' way, and nothing changed. Now, it gets people's attention, which might mean they can see there is some validity to (his words). 


"The city doesn't want to be held accountable for things that go on in the city," he added. "Instead, they just want to get their feelings hurt." 


Racist or not, Smith thinks Sanders' words are often uncalled for and disrespectful -- a sign he wants to demand respect without giving any. 


"If you look at it, it's obvious how he means it," Smith said. "... He's a grown man, and he knows what he's saying. So do we just continue to sit there and let somebody say derogatory things about the city? It gets old after a while." 




Moving forward 


Brooks doesn't know if relations between Sanders and Smith will ever improve. 


Relying on that to move forward, however, holds the public hostage, he said. 


Other voices in city and county government need to rise to the forefront, instead, and force the two entities to work better together. 


Beyond that, Brooks said, concerned citizens need to join the chorus calling for more effective government. 


"It's time for the public to rise up," Brooks said. "Everybody's got to quit whispering to one another. They've got to pull the political players to the table and say ... 'we're expecting more.' Businesspeople and other people in the community who have an investment, I don't think they can stand on the sidelines." 


He's also calling on his fellow public officials to "cut out the foolishness." 


"Neither of these men speak for the entire political body," he said. "The burden needs to be put back on the (other) elected officials. Is this going to be our legacy?" 


Both Smith and Sanders acknowledge, though, they have to be willing participants in improving city/county relations. 


For Smith, he said it can't be "my way or Harry's way" if anything is ever going to change. 


"The fighting is not accomplishing anything," Smith said. "I know that. It's not a good look for the citizens or people looking to move here. Until the two people at the top (Smith and Sanders) say 'enough is enough' with all the bickering, it's not going to get any better." 


Sanders agrees, but applying levity to the conversation, took a longer-term view on the improvement prospects. 


"Robert's not going to be there forever, and I won't be there forever. That's probably how it will be resolved," he joked.

Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.