After more than an hour behind closed doors, the commission emerged to vote to terminate Russell, effective Dec. 31, and begin the search for his replacement.
Commissioner Joe Jackson said he hadn’t entered the session with plans to fire Russell, but agreed it was time.
“The more and more I thought about it sitting there – about the budget, about how the SPLOST money that’s been allocated and spent and we haven’t even collected it yet. I like Fred as a person, but at the end of the day when you’re dealing with almost a $1 billion budget and you try to give ideas on balancing it and how to make Augusta a better place, it’s like we take two steps forward and three steps back,” Jackson said.
Over the last three years, commissioners have floated the idea of firing Russell, but never had six supporting votes. Commissioners Alvin Mason and Bill Lockett led the charge in 2011, after Russell awarded hefty raises to 44 employees without the commission’s knowledge, but other commissioners cited the lack of a suitable backup in deciding not to terminate him.
Recently, however, Russell’s handling of the 2014 budget, which he presented with an $8 million shortfall, city maintenance issues and a decision to designate downtown as a “slum” to issue low-interest bonds to fund most of a $40 million renovation of city hallrevived an effort to evaluate his job performance. It had the support of several commissioners – Donnie Smith, Mary Davis, Marion Williams – who took office this year.
Donnie Smith, along with commissioners Grady Smith and Wayne Guilfoyle and Mayor Deke Copenhaver, were absent for the vote Monday.
Among the issues, Lockett and Jackson said Russell was too friendly with or influential over certain employees and department heads, who tended to agree with him rather than speaking independently to the commission.
Russell’s replacement “better be able to stand on their own and do what’s right,” Lockett said. The city charter “didn’t want anybody who wasn’t elected to have that much authority,” he said.
Lockett said Monday’s decision happened in part because of a news report last week in which Russell bragged he was leaving on his own terms.
“I wanted him to leave under amicable conditions,” but Russell “made us look like a bunch of buffoons” in the report, Lockett said. “You just don’t talk about your employer in that way.”
Russell exceeded his authority in influencing General Counsel Andrew Mackenzie, Lockett said. Senior Staff Attorney Wayne Brown, not MacKenzie, advised the commission in the closed-door session. MacKenzie and Russell were sent out.
“I think he’s gotten himself too close to the fire,” Jackson said of Russell, citing Russell’s continued employment of friends – such as convicted murderer Don D’Antignac – who don’t appear to do much work as they accrue years toward their city retirement. “At the end of the day, I’m tired of the perpetual dance. We’re kicking the can down the road,” he said.
A former Richmond, Va., deputy police chief, Russell was hired as deputy administrator in 2002 by former Augusta City Administrator George Kolb, who knew him from Richmond. He earns $136,859.
Flanked by Mason, Davis, Lockett, Donnie Smith and Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson after the decision, Russell expressed surprise about his firing but spoke in positive terms about the city’s future.
“Working for 10 people is tough, although all these jobs are hard. Augusta has its particular challenges, most of which are ones we’ve created for ourselves… I look forward to continue to be a part, in some way,” said Russell, whose wife Teresa is from the area and works as a deputy Richmond County marshal.
“Two weeks from now, a year from now, they’re going to wonder who Fred Russell was,” he said. “That’s what this is all about, is moving forward. Until a few minutes ago, it was moving forward with Fred, today it’s moving forward without him… The timing was a little bit quicker than I anticipated, but I’m not in charge of that.”
Asked about his termination package, Russell said “I assume if I was fired for no specific violation of a federal or state law, that package would be on the deal. That’s well within the parameters of what people in my position would expect.”
The decision should come as no surprise, Mason said. “I think most of the community knows the commission has been having discussions about either his termination or his release. The timing may be a surprise, but the final result of Mr. Russell departing is not a surprise.”
The unanimous vote indicates “it’s not a black vote, it’s not a white vote, it’s a vote to relieve him of his duties effective Dec. 31,” Mason said. “It’s over.”
As a senior executive staff member under the city personnel manual, Russell is eligible for six months’ severance if terminated, even for cause, so long as he didn’t break laws, although whether he’ll receive a settlement or its amount has not been determined, several commissioners said.
Commissioners said Russell’s replacement must be a certified city administrator, “one who has gone through appropriate training, has the appropriate degree and who is certified as an administrator,” Mason said. “That is something we unanimously agreed on, is having a headhunter do that search.”
Since Deputy Administrator Bill Shanahan’s resignation in August to take a job in York County, S.C., the city has just one deputy administrator on staff – Tameka Allen, a city employee since 1992 who also serves as Information Technology director.
Allen “wears two hats” already, said Johnson, who expects a decision by Tuesday on whether Allen, someone else or possibly someone from outside city government would serve as interim administrator until the position is filled.