Russell states his frustrations with Augusta government during Sarasota interview

City Administrator Fred Russell portrayed himself as an intelligent leader frustrated with stagnation in Augusta who is in search of new challenges in Sarasota County, Fla., in an interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Russell, one of four finalists interviewing for the position of Sarasota County administrator, told the Herald-Tribune “the learning curve here (Augusta) is a little flat.

“It seems to be at the moment we’re doing some of the same issues we’ve been doing 10 years ago,” Russell said.

Hired as deputy administrator in 2002, Russell was named city administrator in 2005 on the resignation of his former Richmond, Va., colleague George Kolb. As administrator, Kolb pushed for greater managerial authority, and he complained of Augusta Commission “micromanagement” when he left to become manager in Wichita, Kan.

Russell’s biggest critics on the commission this year have been the four of 10 commissioners opposing most measures to increase the administrator’s authority to hire, fire, reorganize and outsource personnel.

Outrage at Russell grew after he used his newfound authority in July to award 44 hefty raises to selected employees whose duties were said to increase within reorganized departments. That led to Aug. 16 and Sept. 6 commission motions to fire Russell, both of which failed.

Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who has not supported a vote to fire Russell and is listed as one of his references in Sarasota County, agreed that Augusta tends to revisit the same concerns – Regency Mall, Hyde Park, certain drainage issues – over and over, without finding easy resolutions.

Russell’s comments to the Sarasota newspaper indicate “he’s thinking some of us are slow on the uptake,” Brigham said.

Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles said some “are trying to look in the past,” more than forward, “and I can understand that frustration.”

“We’re trying to streamline and make our government efficient and effective, and a lot of people are trying to make it a different result,” Bowles said.

“I think sometimes we beat a dead horse,” said Commissioner Matt Aitken, who voted Aug. 16 to fire Russell. Aitken named the yet-unresolved issue of downtown parking in his District 1 as an example.

Though some commissioners have previously cited the lack of a backup plan for why they voted against firing the administrator, there still is no plan in place, nor has anyone voiced support for an effort to retain him. The city has two deputy administrators, one of whom would be next in line on an interim basis should Russell accept another job.

“I think there are those that think he’s irreplaceable,” Bowles said. “I think in almost every position, unless you’re an inventor like Steve Jobs, everybody’s replaceable. We will find somebody to fill his place.”

If selected by Sarasota County, Russell likely would negotiate a higher salary than the $136,359 he makes in Augusta, which is on the low end for cities or counties this size.

The Sarasota County candidates, who also hail from York County, S.C.; Alachua County, Fla.; and North Palm Beach, Fla., were invited as a group to attend public meet-and-greets Sunday and Monday. The five-member Sarasota County Commission will interview the candidates in open session after lunch today.

None of the four candidates had withdrawn from consideration as of Monday afternoon.

What's next?

 The five-member Sarasota County Commission will interview the four candidates, including Fred Russell, in open session today. The commission could make a decision today or continue deliberations at a 2 p.m. Thursday session tentatively scheduled for that purpose, according to Sarasota County Communications Director Crystal Pruitt.

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