He survived two votes to fire him, only to find himself a top contender for similar jobs in other cities twice, but City Administrator Fred Russell is mostly unfazed by the events of 2011 as he begins his seventh year in city government.
On a December morning, he circulated a photo of the sun rising over the Savannah River, the view from his riverfront condominium. Russell said the view is as nice as he might find along the James River in Richmond, Va., where he was once a deputy police chief, but much more affordable.
"I’m just a humble bureaucrat that’s trying to do a job as directed by the policymakers,” he said, with only a hint of irony. “I work within the policies they set.”
The Augusta Commission is the “they,” who with six votes most of the time can tell Russell what to do.
Six votes could have terminated Russell when Commissioner Alvin Mason called for it Aug. 16 and Sept. 6, but neither vote passed. On Aug. 16, Mason and Commissioners Bill Lockett, J.R. Hatney and Matt Aitken voted to fire Russell. On Sept. 6, a vote to fire the administrator failed 7-2, with only Mason and Lockett voting in favor.
The reason Mason gave for calling for Russell’s head was the administrator’s under-the-radar implementation of 44 raises for employees whose duties changed under a government reorganization plan. According to critics, the move was unwise, given that most city employees have been furloughed and under a raise freeze for several years.
Russell’s reaction to the votes was to send out his résumé. Within weeks, he was named one of four finalists for the job of administrator in Sarasota County, Fla. He wasn’t selected but soon also withdrew his name from short lists for positions in both Tacoma, Wash., and a Colorado city.
“Floating a few résumés out there, I found out that I’m still competitive,” Russell said. “What I took out of that was that I am, but I want to stay in Augusta.”
Russell calls Augusta “a tough place” for its blend of urban and rural issues and diversity of people and opinions.
“We run the whole gamut from inner-city problems to rural growth issues,” he said. “The elected body represents a wide range of people with sometimes not-similar interests that makes it tough to form a consensus.”
A typical city of 200,000 people might struggle with a declining urban infrastructure and suburban sprawl, but it wouldn’t also contend with rural desires for low services and ultra-low taxes, he said.
Divide the issues evenly among 10 commissioners and throw in declining revenues, and, Russell said, the fact that his head might be on the chopping block three times in six years should come as no surprise.
“These are hard jobs. It’s hard to keep people happy,” he said. “These votes happen across the country almost every week for administrators or city managers.”
Russell denies allegations made by some commissioners that he performs the will of the majority – to reorganize the government, cut jobs and outsource some departments – out of fear for his job. Instead, he states what he readily has during his tenure: Six votes rule.
“The way the democratic process works is six people get to run the shop. They get to make the policy decisions, which I implement,” he said.
So, after six commissioners authorized Russell to reorganize the government and give raises of certain amounts, that’s what he did, and he stands by the decision.
“Giving the raises was the right thing to,” Russell said of the 44 raises he signed off on in July without alerting the commission. “Do I think I would have made the commission aware that I was going to do it? No.”
ANOTHER ISSUE that has created controversy is the deal-making surrounding construction of the city’s new downtown parking deck. The commission last week voted to have a forensic audit conducted. But Russell said he thinks the deal was done lawfully.
Approved years ago by voters, the deck was constructed on land Russell originally said was to be donated. Sometime during the past few years, details changed. While the city swapped land with state Sen. Bill Jackson, R-Appling, for a corner lot under the deck, the rest wasn’t donated and remains privately owned.
“The facts changed and it was in the documents they voted on,” Russell said. “You can always find things that people find fault with, if that’s what they’re looking for.”
As a former police officer, Russell said he has experience investigating white-collar crime and expects the external auditor to review all documents prepared by bond attorneys and other lawyers that formed the framework of the construction project.
“You’ve got millions and millions of dollars resting on their ability to do it right,” he said.
DESPITE TAKING much public and commission criticism, Russell maintains that the compliments and thanks he receives on a daily basis outweigh the negative feedback.
“The people at the grocery store that pat me on the back and say, ‘Keep your chin up,’ ” he said. “It happens to me every place I go.”
Rather than the investigations and day-to-day “minutiae,” Russell said he prefers to put a primary focus on job creation.
“The main thing is jobs,” he said. “Every second of our day that we don’t spend trying to get more jobs here is a waste of our time.”
City government has no direct role in job creation, but Russell said infrastructure construction and maintenance that help area colleges, universities and Fort Gordon; incentives offered to area industries; and construction projects such as the Trade, Exhibit and Event Center and new sheriff’s office building have helped “bootstrap the economy here” and protected Augusta from the recession.