By Lee White
Augusta has been in the spotlight this week and not in a good way. First, the Senior Center posted an old joke about Native Americans on its sign. Then, former City Council Member Sue Jones and her husband were fined several hundred dollars for watering stray cats.
As anyone can imagine, these events set off a firestorm of debate. Although I’m not an Augusta resident, I’ve followed events there for many years and, because I continue to write about them, I believe it’s important to make clear my position on these two matters.
Regarding the sign, I wasn’t horribly offended by it and realize it was probably someone’s attempt at humor rather than racism. Nonetheless, the Senior Center is a public agency and the sign is public property. Anti-discrimination laws apply to government agencies and those private concerns that offer public accommodations (restaurants, hotels, real estate agencies, etc.). Someone could allege that the Senior Center discriminated against him or her and use the sign as evidence of a “pattern and practice” of discriminatory behavior. That’s why the sign had to go and, to their credit, officials moved quickly to remove it once someone complained.
Have Americans become too sensitive about such jokes? Well, maybe, but it is a historical fact that European settlers committed genocide against the native people and herded the ones who survived onto reservations. Granted, nobody alive today was responsible for these atrocities just as nobody alive today owned slaves. If somebody wants to crack jokes that some folks might find racist on their Facebook page or in their homes, that’s their right under the First Amendment. Those who are offended can “unfriend” the individual. A government agency by its very nature acts under what’s called “color of law.” We can’t “unfriend” it; we still must fund it with our taxes or go to jail. Its rights are restricted by the same Constitution that gives a private citizen free reign to act like Archie Bunker.
I chose to report on the sign because of its public nature and to start a conversation about the bounds of racially-charged speech. It looks as if I succeeded because, as of this writing, the Facebook post about it has been viewed 16,092 times — a Watchdog record. I’m fairly certain the transgression won’t be repeated, so I’m not going to beat it to death. One final thought: The areas of the United States that are doing the best economically are also the ones that are the most welcoming to those who are different in some way.
On Tuesday, an Augusta Municipal Court judge found Jones and her husband guilty of violating city ordinances that prohibit feeding and watering feral cats. Now, there’s some talk that Jones and her husband had been “hoarding” cats and going on other people’s property to collect them and feed them. A local reporter is working that angle of the story and when she has it ready, I’ll put a link here and on Facebook. Click here to read KWCH-TV’s version of events.
The Joneses are advocates of a trap-neuter-release program and say they’ve been running their own. Jones tried to get the City Council to adopt such a program officially in 2015. The matter was tabled and apparently never revisited, according to this story in the Times-Gazette.
It’s time to revisit it.
If the city’s plan of ignoring the feral cats — I hear the problem is centered downtown — had been successful, the population would have decreased. Even the ones who side with the City of Augusta on this issue admit that there are more cats than ever before. The city is apparently looking for a scapegoat to explain away its failed policy and has found one in the Joneses. If only Sue and her husband would quit feeding and watering them, they’d go away, right?
Well, except for the fact that cats (humans too) will continue to procreate unless they’re fixed or euthanized. One can argue that they may not procreate as fast if they’re not receiving high-quality food and water, but their population will still grow. And if the city isn’t going to address the problem, private citizens eventually will and that’s a recipe for disaster. It’s already a public relations nightmare for the City of Augusta, whose leaders apparently don’t care how outsiders perceive the community.
Now, the Joneses have probably been warned not to feed the cats and Sue was even cited in 2015 for putting boxes outside her business to shelter them. Her continuing to feed them is probably an act of civil disobedience. The City Council’s failure to do anything beyond perpetuating a failed system is an act of negligence at best.
The Joneses had better quit feeding the cats, but the city had better revisit the trap-neuter-release program. I believe any such program should include basic vaccinations, as well, so that a rabies problem doesn’t take hold. It works elsewhere and could be privately funded just as it is in Phoenix. I’d be willing to bet the Joneses would raise money to start the program. Although I don’t live in Augusta, I’d be happy to contribute and to publicize the fundraiser through Watchdog.
If the City Council won’t take another look at trap-neuter-release — or at least do something proactive about the feral cat issue — then folks can rightly conclude that its members are a bunch of control freaks who care nothing about solving community problems by means other than force. Augusta has traditionally had a difficult time finding candidates to run for council, but if the current heavy-handed manner of dealing with its citizenry continues, it should be no problem to find replacements in the next couple of election cycles. And you can bet I’ll help with that, too!