AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Local leaders are expressing uncertainty about whether Augusta-Richmond County should adopt an ordinance that would penalize businesses for discriminating against people.
News outlets report commissioners questioned Thursday whether the ordinance would encourage harassing complaints against businesses and whether it's too harsh to put a company out of business by revoking its license for a second conviction within one year.
Mayor Hardie Davis's plan would ban discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, hairstyles, military status and other characteristics at Augusta businesses.
Davis, who made the proposal in 2019, said the intent “was to provide a way for those most vulnerable in our community to have their voices heard and be able to go through that process deliberately.”
Other Georgia cities including Atlanta and Savannah already have nondiscrimination ordinances.
Under the Augusta proposal, a complaint would have to be filed with the city within 90 days of any alleged discrimination. The city would then provide a copy of the complaint to the accused business and investigate within 45 days. If the inquiry found discrimination, the city would send parties to voluntary, non-binding mediation. Anyone unhappy with the mediator could appeal to the Richmond County Magistrate Court. If a judge found probable cause, the county solicitor would then decide whether or not to prosecute.
If a trial found a preponderance of the evidence showed discrimination, a business would be penalized with a civil fine of $500 for a first offense, and $1,000 for each subsequent offense. A business would lose its business license if convicted of two violations in a year, forcing it out of business.
Religious groups would be among those exempted.
City Administrator Odie Donald proposed that the commission hold a public hearing to gather opinions, particularly in the area of hair styles, which he said comes up more often. He said the entire process needs a cost estimate to avoid creating an “unfunded mandate.”
Donald said the Greater Black Augusta Chamber of Commerce and the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce are both supportive. Last year, the Augusta Metro Chamber told commissioners that the proposal would make the city seem unfriendly to businesses.
“In somewhat of a way, I see this as an embarrassment a little bit to Augusta,” said Commissioner Catherine Smith McKnight. “It’s almost used to encourage more complaints, and I just don’t see in the long run it being something that’s going to help us.”
Davis said he's willing to consider provisions to prevent frivolous claims.
City attorney Wayne Brown said revoking a business license “certainly adds a lot of teeth the ordinance.”
"But how quick you bite someone probably should be measured,” he added.