A standing-room-only audience filled the commission chamber and hallway outside as the commission met for 90 minutes behind closed doors with attorneys, but not Russell.
Emerging into open session, Commissioner Alvin Mason made a motion to terminate Russell that was immediately seconded by Commissioner Bill Lockett.
“In light of the discussion we had back in legal, I want to make a motion that Mr. Russell be terminated, effective immediately,” Mason said.
Mason and Lockett have led a charge to fire Russell since becoming aware last week that the administrator granted 44 employees raises in the context of a reorganization plan that was supposed to save the city money.
While other commissioners had joined them in criticizing the raises, only two – Matt Aitken and J.R. Hatney – voted in favor of the motion.
“We voted to fire him,” Aitken said. “It’s been an ongoing thing ever since (former Public Services Director) Mike Greene and how that whole situation was handled. It’s just been up and down, a roller coaster in so many cases, and when you see the follow-through that we’ve seen from the administrator, and some of the things that were asked over the course of our meetings.”
Aitken, the one commissioner eligible for re-election next year, said he had “received demanding phone calls.”
Greene, who retired, was among the first employees targeted by the reorganization plan. His department was eliminated, and its functions spread among the city’s engineering, recreation and environmental services departments.
Russell has justified the raises by saying employees in the other departments who took on public works’ maintenance functions were now doing more work, but he did not present a report on the subject Tuesday as Mason had requested on the regular meeting agenda.
After they emerged from the closed-door meeting, Mason’s motion to fire Russell initially was met with opposition from Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who said it needed unanimous consent to be added to the agenda.
When Mason argued that an agenda item relating to the city’s bus service had similarly morphed into an action, General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie offered to “look into the provision if we take a short recess,” but Bowles interjected that unanimous consent was there and the item moved forward.
“I thought we just needed to go ahead and get it over with,” Brigham said after the meeting.
Before the vote was taken, Mason gave a short speech.
“All the citizens are looking for is a few good men who have the intestinal fortitude to do what is right,” he said. “We have all run on a platform of change, setting the tone and moving this city forward.”
Russell’s contract awards him six months’ salary if he’s fired. The city’s new personnel manual adds at least three more months’ severance pay to top-ranking employees who are terminated.
Johnson, who frequently votes with Mason and Lockett, indicated there was more to his vote than a desire to retain Russell.
“I don’t think the people would be happy paying him $200,000 plus the potential litigation,” Johnson said. “The exit is all about the strategy,” he said, declining to elaborate.
Brigham, who has requested the city’s auditor examine whether the raises were given in accordance to policy, said he voted against the motion because the commission had no backup plan.
“Just to go in there and fire somebody when you don’t have any idea about how to replace them? That’s ridiculous,” he said.
While most of the commissioners have called for an explanation for the raises, Russell provided none Tuesday because Brigham motioned to adjourn.
“I had had enough,” Brigham said.
Russell, who had to be summoned from his office after the vote was taken, said, “No matter what the vote was, the commission has the right to do what’s appropriate.”
Among many in attendance was Rollins neighborhood activist Juanita Burney.
“When he gave 15 percent raises, I don’t know what he was thinking,” Burney said. “Fifteen percent is unheard of, especially in a down economy.”
Others were shocked at how few voted in favor of the motion.
“I thanked Matt for his vote,” Harrisburg activist Lori Davis said.