Working in circus, with its Bozos, Russell will get hook

The week ended, and I don't know which was lower, everybody's 401(k) or City Administrator Fred Russell . Both took a dive.


Russell, as you know, is on the firing line for giving 44 city employees raises during a budget crisis. And, as you also know, Commissioners Alvin Mason and Bill Lockett have called for Russell's resignation. Mason is even naming possible interim administrators for after the board fires Russell, which Mason says he has the votes to do.

Others say he doesn't. Not yet.

But it's coming, sooner or later, because the shelf life of city managers in the storehouse of egos is three years, and Russell has already outlived his.

Mason and Lockett, along with Commissioners J.R. Hatney and Corey Johnson, are now looking like visionaries for their resistance to the personnel manual that gave Russell the authority to grant raises up to 15 percent without commission approval.

I TOLD YOU SO: "I expected it," said Johnson. "I said it from day one. We didn't need to give Fred that kind of authority. The reorganization gave him more power. He basically used some very poor judgment."

Hatney said, "This is the same thing I was trying to caution our folks about when the personnel manual gave him that power. They said it took six votes to pass it. I said it took eight."

The six white commissioners who approved the manual over Mason's, Lockett's, Johnson's and Hatney's vociferous objections feel like somebody jerked the rug from under their feet.

"No doubt I feel betrayed," said Commissioner Joe Bowles . "We put a lot of faith in Fred to do a reduction in force, but it was just a reshuffling of force. We supposedly go from laying 49 people off to laying two people off. Local government is like the federal government, an employment agency."

Bowles said he feels that Russell has been playing both sides of the fence, telling the white commissioners he's reducing the force, while transferring them into other jobs to placate Lockett who was screaming he didn't want anybody to lose a job.

"That didn't save a damn dime," Bowles said.

"It's like a shell game. I know it's hard for a Democrat to fire somebody," he added, referring to Russell.

THEY SAID. HE SAID. EITHER WAY YOU PAY: Russell, meanwhile, says they'll have to fire him because he did what they told him to do, which was to:

- Streamline the government and make it more efficient

- Not raise taxes

- Update the personnel manual

Besides, if they fire him, he'll walk away with at least six months' pay and possibly more.

In his defense, he repeatedly asked commissioners in public meetings whether they wanted him to proceed with the reorganization, and a majority said yes, although Mason kept insisting he show them by position where the savings would be. When Russell initially outlined the proposed reorganization in January he talked about it for 2 1/2 hours, for which he was criticized by Mason for speaking "ad nauseum."

In March, Russell distributed 21 pages of a 200-page document spelling out details and waded through it with a power-point presentation.

SPOKEN LIKE A PROPHET: "If we can't find consensus on what direction we're going in, we're in for a very miserable six to eight months, and probably a couple of years after that," Russell said at that meeting.

FROM WALKING A TIGHTROPE TO WALKING THE PLANK: On Tuesday, Mason and Lockett demanded specifics about raises for department directors, including the justification. Russell said he'd given 15 percent raises to four department directors who'd assumed additional duties. But he failed to mention approving raises for 40 other employees. When commissioners found out, they were furious and accused him of not being up front with them.

Russell said he answered the questions they asked him and was told at least twice to keep the answers short, which is true. And who can blame him for clamming up in the face of such badgering?

Anyway, commissioners will meet Tuesday to discuss "personnel," a euphemism for what could be Russell's necktie party. They're also supposed to talk about rescinding the raises, which they can't legally do.

WON'T SOMEBODY PLEASE HELP THEM SCRAPE THE EGG OFF THEIR FACES? Late Friday, white commissioners were saying they shouldn't do anything rash because of the budget. They also don't want to do anything rash because they resent Mason going out on his own to call for the resignation.

"You can rest assured, we ain't going to do nothing until we have a game plan," said Commissioner Jerry Brigham .

Rankled by the furor the raises have created and the critics coming out of the woodwork to blast one and all, Brigham said, "They all have all the answers, but I don't see them stepping up to the plate and qualifying to run and trying to help."

(Well, Jerry, in case you don't already know, everybody knows how to run a government and coach a football team.)

Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said he's waiting until Tuesday before making a decision on how he'd vote on a motion to fire Russell.

"If we do a knee-jerk reaction and fire him, and we don't get anybody strong, we could end up in worse shape than we are in now," he said. "But believe me, we are looking."

One thing everybody does agree on is that the timing couldn't have been worse.

"It's sad," said Commissioner Grady Smith . "It's an unpopular thing for some people to get raises and others not. If I did that in my business, it would cause dissension. And with dissension among the troops, you've got chaos."

IF EVER OH EVER A WIZ THERE WAS: I believe that Russell is honest, capable, diligent and dedicated. He's just tight-lipped. It must be his Dick Tracy background. And while he might not have gotten out front and sold his reorganization plan adequately after that first try, he has done many good things during his six years as administrator.

Richmond County property taxes are lower now than they were three years ago. There's money in the savings account, no general fund debt and sales-tax projects are moving right along.

Russell has overseen the construction of a judicial center, a new library, several new fire stations, a new animal control building, the TEE Center and parking deck, improvements to the water system, expansions at the airport and Webster Detention Center and initial construction on the new sheriff's administration building. So far, all have been under budget and on time.

In addition, he's managed for seven years to keep commissioners relatively happy, including Marion Williams , who made the motion to hire him and later a motion to fire him.

Some folks took exception to Russell's reference last week to managing the circus. But it's obvious city managers walk among lions, tigers, bears -- and some real Bozos. Sometimes all you can say is "Oh my," like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz .

I'M NOT SAYIN', I'M JUST SAYIN': Ernie likes to talk to the TV. At least to the people who are talking on TV. Sometimes he agrees with what they say. Sometimes, he doesn't. When he agrees, he'll say something like, "That's what I've been saying!" When he doesn't, he'll say "That's a lie" or "You don't know what you're talking about!" and flip the channel.

When he starts getting on my nerves, I tell him to stop because I can't hear what the next person is saying. Sometimes he does. Sometimes he doesn't, in which case, I go to the bedroom and read. So when the Republican candidates' debate came on Thursday and he started saying things like "Ron Paul is crazier than I am," and "Mitt Romney is weaker than McCain," I went to bed.

Friday morning I asked him who won the debate, and he said, "I did!"

Then my cellphone rang, and he said, "You'd better get that. It's probably the chamber of commerce wanting to invite you for lunch. My advice is 'Don't eat the food.' " (See last week's column.)

Oh, by the way, Augusta ranked way up there in yet another national ranking -- third in the top 15 most dangerous cities for driving.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at


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