Taking heat for giving 44 city employees raises as the rest of staff endures freezes and cutbacks, City Administrator Fred Russell narrowly kept his job Aug. 16, with several Augusta Commission members citing the lack of a suitable backup as the only reason they didn’t vote to fire him.
During Augusta’s short history as a consolidated government, however, the city has twice survived the unplanned departure of an administrator – although the second time, it was Russell who stepped forward during the budget process to ease the transition.
That is why some commission members who want to see Russell canned don’t buy the argument of his being irreplaceable.
“Just like he stepped in, other people could step in too,” Augusta Commissioner Bill Lockett said Thursday.
While Russell was on vacation last week, the commission had an opportunity to deal directly with his top assistants, Tameka Allen and Bill Shanahan. Some commission members have said they don’t know enough about the experience of either to be comfortable that they could handle the administrator’s job.
Shanahan “has only been in town for a month or two,” Brigham said, and “has not been in a city this size.” Before he was hired in March, Shanahan, a retired Air Force colonel, had served as the city manager of St. Marys, Ga., since 2004.
Allen, who would become the city’s first black female administrator, doesn’t appear to have much commission support for the job. She has dual roles as department head and deputy adminstrator and Allen was involved in the controversial government reorganization plan. She said she hadn’t considered whether she was up to the challenge, but didn’t know of any reason she couldn’t do it.
“I really haven’t given it any thought, because Mr. Russell is still here,” she said.
Shanahan said he has managed city government and worked with a three-person team to develop the city budget for St. Marys over the past seven years. The southeast Georgia city has a population of just under 20,000 and a total budget of $40 million. Augusta’s population is 200,000 and its total annual budget is close to $700 million.
Russell declined to resign over the salary raises, something he is authorized by the commission to do. He has stated he has confidence in both deputy administrators to carry on when he is away.
If Russell is fired, it wouldn’t be the first time the city has had to change administrators during the budget process.
WHEN RANDY OLIVER was hired to manage the newly consolidated city and county governments in October 1997, he brought in only one man – former deputy Richmond County administrator Walter Hornsby – to help him.
When Oliver’s résumé began to surface on short lists to head governments in other communities, city officials began to worry what to do if Oliver quit. In the end, even an offer of more money couldn’t retain him. In October 2000, Oliver took a position in Greenville, S.C., earning $135,000 – $35,000 more than he was making in Augusta.
Oliverleft a parting gift, however – a draft 2001 budget requiring several million dollars in cuts to be balanced.
Hornsby, who balked at commissioners’ doubts about his ability to serve on an interim basis, was tapped as the interim administrator.
In November, the commission hired a search firm to hasten the recruitment process for Oliver’s replacement. Among numerous applicants, the firm came forward with a finalist whom Mayor Bob Young recommended the commission hire – Detroit native George Kolb, who was then serving as deputy city manager and the director of public utilities in Richmond, Va.
Kolb, Augusta’s first black administrator, had previously served as assistant city manager or city manager in three Michigan cities. But recognizing, perhaps, the importance of having a backup, Kolb and some commissioners began pushing for the hiring of another deputy administrator, and Kolb already had one in mind – his former colleague, Deputy Richmond Police Chief Fred Russell.
Kolb, hired in April 2001, had a budget done by the end of the year that included a $79,000 salary for Russell to serve as the deputy administrator over public safety. Russell resigned his Richmond police job that year to run for sheriff of the city of Richmond, but lost and became one of what were then two deputy Augusta administrators in January 2002.
With some on the commission pushing to give Kolb more managerial authority, Kolb butted heads during his tenure with others as he asked for increased purchasing power and authority to hire and fire department heads.
“Our charter says we have an administrator, not a manager,” said former Commissioner Marion Williams. “He wanted to be a manager.”
Unlike Oliver, Kolb interviewed department head candidates himself and presented a recommendation to the commission. He complained of being micromanaged and in May 2004, four months after the retirement of Hornsby and at the start of the budgeting process, Kolb resigned to take a job as city manager of Wichita, Kan.
Russell’s salary was boosted to $105,000 when he took the reins as the interim city administrator, and commissioners heaped on praise when they voted in January 2005 to make his title permanent.
When Russell tapped Allen and Shanahan as deputy administrators, both were already city department heads. Allen, a city employee since 1992 and information technology director since 2004, continues to serve in both roles.
IT WAS AROUND the time Russell recommended Shanahan for the deputy administrator position over public safety earlier this year that commissioners’ disapproval of Russell’s government reorganization plan began to mount, particularly among commissioners who opposed the plan.
Allen, a major architect of the reorganization plan, was among the staffers given retroactive 15 percent raises that infuriated several commissioners including Alvin Mason and Lockett, who called for Russell’s termination. The boost brought Allen’s salary to $131,289, while Russell remains at $136,359, significantly less than his former bosses now earn.
Oliver is now the county administrator in Escambia County, Fla., while Kolb is assistant city manager in Surprise, Ariz.
While Mason and Lockett have for months called for Russell to provide documentation showing how the reorganization plan actually is saving the city money, the report Russell distributed earlier this week met with only tepid approval from the commissioners who didn’t vote to fire him.
Commissioner Jerry Brigham called for Russell to cut more and demonstrate more than the $2 million in savings the report showed, while Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles questioned the savings from positions that already were vacant. Mason has called for additional discussion at Monday’s meeting of the commission’s Administrative Services Committee.