Monday’s firing of City Administrator Fred Russell might only be the start of change in Augusta government, although several details of Russell’s Dec. 31 exit remain undetermined.
Augusta commissioners surprised many, including their absent colleagues, when they voted 7-0 Monday to terminate Russell, who has held the job since January 2005, and begin immediately the search for “a qualified and certified administrator” to replace him.
Reached Tuesday, two of the absent commissioners – Donnie Smith and Wayne Guilfoyle – said they expected the commission to follow one of several scenarios for Russell’s departure and not the quick decision made by the group Monday. But, both said their issues with Russell over cutting the 2014 budget drove a decision they’d likely have supported.
“Everybody sensed that it was probably time for us to move on,” Smith said. “The budget caused some hurdles that could not be overcome.”
The decision to fire Russell, on a motion made by Commissioner Marion Williams that was seconded by Commissioner Mary Davis, means that a number of details must be worked out, including the amount, if any, of a severance package for Russell, and who will lead the city government from Jan. 1 until his replacement is found.
As a Level 4 senior executive staff member with eight years on the job, Russell is eligible for the maximum payout under the city personnel manual adopted in 2011 – six months’ salary and benefits or about $100,000 – if he is fired for any reason besides breaking state or federal laws.
That may not be all, however, and City General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie said Tuesday he “cannot comment on the enforceability of an engagement agreement” that also may bind the group as Russell moves on. Russell did not respond to repeated requests for comment Tuesday.
During a prior term while he was mayor pro tem, Williams said he’d signed another contract that would double Russell’s severance if it remains in effect. The personnel manual doesn’t void any existing employment contracts.
“I don’t have any problem with paying him for six months,” Lockett said, expecting the personnel manual to supersede the earlier agreement with Russell. “He’s an honorable man.”
Williams and Lockett, however, expected one or more close comrades of Russell to follow him out the door, but wouldn’t get too specific.
“It could be in the not-too-distant future, that other people would be saying goodbye too,” Lockett said. “One thing I know for certain is it won’t be business as usual anymore.”
Williams, a frequent critic of city department heads, pointed to the law department.
He said MacKenzie had failed to provide the commission with exit scenarios for Russell in an effort to delay the process, while uncertainty about the severance package amount and other city matters, including parliamentary procedure at meetings, show the lawyer isn’t doing his job.
“They always cloudy the water; they don’t clear,” Williams said.
“It proves they have not been doing what they should as an attorney.”
Smith said MacKenzie had sent several exit options, including firing Russell outright and paying him severance, or a longer process involving hiring a deputy administrator and allowing that person to train under Russell until the administrator announced his retirement later next year.
He expected the commission to finalize a severance package for Russell next week.
Who will serve as interim administrator from Jan. 1 until the search is complete also remains uncertain.
Lockett had a clear plan in mind – make Deputy Administrator and IT Director Tameka Allen interim administrator and move Assistant IT Director Mike Blanchard to interim IT director. Blanchard previously served as interim human resources director.
Allen “has done an outstanding job in IT as far as succession plans,” something the commission made a priority months ago, Lockett said. “I’ve had conversations with (human resources
director) Ms. (Tanika) Bryant and Mrs. Allen and we’re all in agreement it can be done.”
Smith said in addition to Allen, other names had been considered for the interim slot, expected to last less than 90 days.
They include recently retired longtime Planning and Development Director George Patty, and former deputy administrator and Richmond County Correctional Institute Director Robert Leverett.
Smith said he didn’t know if either was interested in the job.