Leader keeps steady hand

The average tenure of a city administrator is about three years, but Fred Russell just passed that anniversary with no plans to leave and most of his bosses singing his praises.


They call him witty, communicative, tough and political.

"He's got to play politics," said Commissioner Joe Bowles. "He couldn't have survived the past three years if he didn't."

Mayor Pro Tem Betty Beard describes Mr. Russell as "easy to work with and very understanding."

"He seems to be able to relate to everyone," she said. "I think he's the reason for the success we've had, because he can work with all of us. And that doesn't mean we haven't had differences, but we move on." Less effusive is Commissioner J.R. Hatney who said, "As far as I'm concerned, he does a decent job."

Commissioner Calvin Holland declined to grade the administrator, saying only, "performance speaks for itself."

Commissioner Jerry Brigham said he just wished Mr. Russell would watch the pennies a little closer.

"He's definitely not a tightwad, even though he tries to play the part," Mr. Brigham said.

Commissioner Don Grantham said Mr. Russell has done a good job of "riding the fence and keeping commissioners advised."

"My only complaint with Fred is that sometimes he has a Democratic mind and does not weigh what a tax increase means," he said. "I support Fred, and I think he deserves a raise."

Mr. Russell said his most significant contribution to city government has been continuity and stability.

"And while obviously this position has been the point of the spear in several issues, most of which were not conducive to moving us forward, I think overall we've brought a more calm approach to actually doing government from this particular office," he said. "It's not a lot of flash, a lot of glitter, but we seem to be able to handle the day-to-day things fairly well."

He counts among his successes balanced budgets with "small, realistic tax increases."

"We've absorbed extremely high health-care costs for our employees, additional costs for our jail inmates, additional gas and power costs that are outrageous for everybody, and we've been able to still keep the tax increases somewhat small," he said.

This year, the city will break ground on projects talked about long before he came to Augusta.

"We're actually getting ready to move dirt on projects like the judicial center, the library, the TEE center," Mr. Russell said.

He also counts his visibility throughout Augusta as a positive.

"When people get together and want to talk, we're not afraid to go talk to them," he said.

Mr. Russell said he came to Augusta planning to stay two years. That was almost seven years ago.

"I think what attracted and kept me here was the potential of Augusta," he said. "Not only the potential of the place but the potential of the people.

"Look at what's going on around us. We've got millions of dollars being invested in the hospitals; $70 million in the Augusta Mall; $500 million in the road system from the state. Those are big jobs. They're not things I can take credit for, but I've been part of the team that helped bring them here, and it's pretty cool."

He counts as a major challenge trying to get commissioners to unify on a single vision.

"And another is to get the chip off Augusta's shoulder," he said. "So many times when I first got here I kept hearing people say, 'You can't do that. It's Augusta.' Or, 'Augusta doesn't work that way.' Or 'Augusta can't.' That's ridiculous. And I think we're getting past that."

Mr. Russell said he tries to provide the best information he can to commissioners.

"When they want my opinion, I tell them the best information I have at the time without a whole lot of flash and glitter," he said. "You don't try to put one side against another."

Once they make a decision, it's his job to implement it, even if he doesn't agree with it.

"And on more than one occasion, it's been one I haven't agreed with or one I thought was not prudent," he said. "But they're the ones that make the policy."

One of the biggest ordeals of his tenure arose last year, when Mr. Holland tried to get a copy of Mr. Russell's computer hard drive on the suspicion that he had been doing personal work on it. Mr. Russell resisted and prevailed.

"I think there are always situations that occur, and Augusta's rife with people that want to see something fall apart as opposed to seeing something get built," he said. "I've had a fairly distinguished public career without a great deal of scandal involved. I was disappointed that that happened and glad that it's over with."

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.


Q: How many times during the week do you say, "Why did I take this job?"

A: "Not as many as I used to."

Q: What kind of opportunity would it take to get you to leave Augusta?

A: "It depends on how many times that day I'd said, 'Why did I take this job?' I don't know. I keep thinking I'd like to be a cop again sometime."

Q: If someone asks you a question you can't answer, what do you say?

A: "I don't know the answer. I'll have to find out and get back to you."

Q: How many phone calls do you answer on an average day?

A : "About 40."

Q: What's the most common complaint you receive about city government?

A: "Cleanliness or taxes. We spend a lot of tax money picking up trash somebody should have put in a trash can."

Q: What's the best advice you give if somebody has a complaint about a city service?

A: "I tell people regularly if they're not satisfied with what we're doing to let us know because unless we know, we can't fix it."

Q: What grade would you give yourself?

A: "B+"


Augusta commissioners grade how well City Administrator Fred Russell (above) is doing his job:

COMMISSIONER Russell's grade
Corey JohnsonC+
Jerry BrighamB+
Jimmy Smith A-
Joe JacksonA
J.R. HatneyC
Betty BeardA
Don GranthamA
Joe BowlesB

*Calvin Holland declined to offer an opinion; Alvin Mason did not respond to the request.