Augusta City Administrator Fred Russell finds few friends on commission after awarding pay raises

Votes to fire embattled administrator unsure
Working in circus, with its Bozos, Russell will get hook
Administrator Fred Russell says the pay raises are justified.

Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason is already talking about Administrator Fred Russell in the past tense.

 

"Whoever comes in is either interim or possibly long term," said Mason, furious with Russell's decision to award 44 employees pay raises, all under the auspices of an ongoing government reorganization that was supposed to save the city money.

Mason, who with Commissioner Bill Lockett called for Russell's job after learning Wednesday of the pay increases, said Friday that no explanation Russell provides during Tuesday's commission meeting will change his mind.

"There's no explanation that warrants that," Mason said. "I don't think it was the intention of the commission to go out and spend $350,000 of taxpayers' money. (Russell) has the authority to make that decision, but I think his judgment, the commission trust factor, come into question."

Whether Mason and Lockett have the support of four other commissioners -- or three and a tiebreaking mayor -- remains to be seen, but several commissioners said last week that they were highly displeased with the raises.

Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles, who initially said he would wait to hear Russell's explanation, was skeptical Friday.

"Maybe Fred's going to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but it's not looking like it," Bowles said.

He also is contemplating who could replace Russell.

"My goal is to find somebody with no ties to Augusta and doesn't mind shaking our government to its core, then leaving," Bowles said.

Commissioner Grady Smith said he had been shocked by the raises, which started his phone ringing and changed the focus of a civic club lunch to him.

"When we turn around and give raises to a few, I think that sends a bad message to the rest of the troops," Smith said.

While he, Bowles and four other commissioners earlier this year authorized Russell to implement a reorganization plan and give raises of up to 15 percent, Smith said the timing of the raises was all wrong.

"Now is not the time to do something like this, when you're furloughing people and we're trying to get out of the red and back into the black on the ledger sheet."

'Morale is down'

Despite a 40-minute discussion during Monday's administrative services committee meeting attended by Mason, Smith, Lockett and Commissioner Jerry Brigham, Russell never volunteered details about who had received raises, naming only four department heads to whom he granted 15 percent increases.

"Something like that, on this magnitude, I think, ought to be discussed," Smith said.

Smith stopped short of calling for Russell's termination: "If we turned around and fired all of us that made a mistake, none of us would have a job," he said.

"The knee-jerk reaction would be fire Fred, but the repercussion of our action is, who do we have to fill his shoes?" said Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle.

Neither Guilfoyle, Bowles nor Mason thinks either of the city's deputy administrators -- Tameka Allen and Bill Shanahan -- are up to the task.

"It's been a troublesome couple of days for us," Guilfoyle said. "He spent $350,000 of the city's money and pissed 2,600 people off. Morale is down."

The raises came at time when Russell has recommended for a second year furloughs and no cost-of-living pay adjustments for city workers, citing this year's $9 million general fund budget deficit.

Departments headed by elected officials -- the sheriff and tax commissioner -- have come under fire for giving promotions and raises, although their personnel policies aren't governed by Russell or the commission.

Shows of support

Commissioner Joe Jackson questioned whether all 44 who received raises deserved them.

"I think a more methodical approach would have been appropriate," said Jackson, also reluctant Friday to put Russell immediately out.

"As of right now, with everything going on, he needs to stay put," Jackson said. "As of right now, today, I don't have a recommendation to take his place."

Commissioners Matt Aitken and Brigham said Friday they doubted Russell would be shown the door Tuesday.

"I don't think we're going to do anything without a plan, and I know we don't have a plan at this point," Brigham said. "I don't look for us to do anything Tuesday."

Aitken said, "We're just trying to sort out what we need to do. It's just discussion right now."

While Mason said he wants Russell's employment status to be discussed openly, Mayor Deke Copenhaver called a legal meeting to discuss personnel behind closed doors at 4 p.m. Tuesday, an hour before the commission meeting.

"I'm not a fan of closed-door meetings; that's something that the mayor will have to explain," Mason said.

Copenhaver and commissioners Lockett, J.R. Hatney and Corey Johnson did not return calls requesting comment.

While administrators over the consolidated Augusta-Richmond County government have taken heat from commissioners over the years, Russell's two predecessors left on their own for other positions.

Randy Oliver, the administrator from 1997 to 2000, became the city manager in Greenville, S.C., despite a commission effort to retain him. George Kolb, who served from 2001 to 2004, left to manage Wichita, Kan.

In his own defense

The optimism Russell expressed Thursday that he still had support among the commission had waned by Friday.

"The bottom line is, I've done the best I could," he said, defending his record of successful construction projects, low taxes and money in the bank.

The raises are justified as employees in reorganized departments take on extra duties, he said.

"Tell me when the timing would be good, given this economy?" Russell said. "You're getting more work and more responsibility out of those employees."

An example Russell frequently cites is that of former Public Services Director Mike Greene, whose department was eliminated in the reorganization and its functions, mostly maintenance, were divided among expanded recreation, engineering and solid waste departments.

Greene's salary and benefits package came to more than $130,000, while the cost of paying three other employees a little more to take on Greene's responsibilities is less, Russell said.

Still, the precise amount of savings from the reorganization is murky, Russell said, after estimating six months ago it would trim $2 million from the deficit.

"Unfortunately, because of our lack of ability to move forward, we're six months behind on that," he said, adding that a figure he recently gave as an estimate of 2011's actual savings -- $400,000 -- included the pay increases.

The heads of each of the departments where raises were given -- finance, utilities, administration, engineering, environmental services and recreation -- spent several hours pitching the raises to Russell, he said.

If Russell is fired without a cause such as gross negligence, he receives six months' salary, according to the employment agreement he signed with the city.

However, he could receive more as the new personnel manual created a division called Senior Executive Staff Group IV that includes Russell. Its members, if terminated within their first year as SES Group IV, are eligible for three months' severance.

If he resigns, he receives nothing.

Working in circus, with its Bozos, Russell will get hook
Augusta City Administrator Fred Russell won't quit, despite commissioners' calls for resignation
Mason says Russell must go
Database: Augusta-Richmond County Employee Raises
Database: Augusta-Richmond County Employee Salaries
Topics:
 

More