Russell, who occasionally clashed with one or more of his 10 bosses on the commission, had offered to train his successor, then retire next year. But seven commissioners cut him short when they decided unanimously Dec. 9 to fire him, effective today.
“It’s sort of awkward to be fired with 21 days’ notice,” Russell, 61, said in an interview.
Commissioners cited no smoking gun or scandal that pushed Russell out of favor, only dissatisfaction with aspects of his job performance.
“I thought it was time for a leadership change. Even Fred acknowledged that he was tired and looking forward to retirement,” said Commissioner Donnie Smith, one of four new members of the panel in 2013. Smith, Wayne Guilfoyle and Grady Smith were absent for the vote to fire Russell, but only Grady Smith has said he opposed the move.
Russell won’t be in city government after today, but he may not be leaving Augusta. Brandon Brown, Paine College Senior Vice President for Institutional Advancement, said Monday the college is currently talking with Russell about a future at the school but no offer has been made.
Brown said Russell would be “ideal” in any kind of government relations position or as a lecturer. He said some kind of decision will be announced soon.
“Fred Russell would be a dynamic addition to anyone’s organization, and there has been some discussion, but no decision has been made,” Brown said.
The decision to move Russell out as city administrator was one some commissioners say should have been done before this month.
“I realized two, maybe three years ago that it was time for a change in the administration,” said Commissioner Bill Lockett, who with Commissioner Alvin Mason unsuccessfully pushed in 2011 to fire Russell for awarding significant raises to 44 city staffers without mentioning it to the commission.
“Administrators don’t assume these positions and maintain them for the rest of their careers,” Lockett said. “There’s turnover on a pretty regular basis, not because they haven’t been doing a good job, but because we need people with different experiences and different viewpoints.”
Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson said he was hoping for Russell to retire until the administrator commented on television that he was choosing his own destiny.
“Fred, in my opinion, has done a great job, especially for someone with no training in that field,” Johnson said. “I don’t have anything negative to say there. Did he make a comment that wasn’t in his favor? Yes.”
Johnson and Lockett said the votes came together behind closed doors and that the group decided then to move forward with the termination. “We had seven that were there, and they were on board,” Johnson said.
Ironically, it was a unanimous vote that did in Russell, who was known to cultivate only the six votes needed to pass a measure.
“This was the first time in almost four years on the commission 100 percent of those commissioners in attendance could sit down, analyze, compromise and make a honest decision,” Lockett said. “This is what was missing while I’ve been on the commission.”
The timing of the decision surprised most, including Russell, who was in his office when the commissioners emerged from the meeting and voted to fire him.
After the firing, Donnie Smith bemoaned the lack of a “clear-cut path forward” in replacing Russell.
One of Russell’s two deputy administrators, Bill Shanahan, resigned in the fall and hasn’t been replaced, leaving only Deputy Administrator Tameka Allen, who doubles as Information Technology director, to oversee the government bureaucracy.
The commission named Mayor Deke Copenhaver as acting administrator in Allen’s absence, but it will likely select another interim administrator to serve until Russell’s successor is found.
The 2011 personnel manual affirmed that top city staff are guaranteed a severance package unless fired for breaking the law. Because of his length of service, Russell is eligible for six months’ salary and benefits, and he said that’s what he expects to receive.
As administrator, he earned $136,859 annually plus a car allowance, retirement plan and insurance, significantly less than the average pay in most metro Atlanta cities and counties that responded to a 2012 Georgia salary survey.
Since 2009, commissioners had complained the most about being kept unaware on details, such as the raises, contractual details related to the Augusta Convention Center and a recent decision to designate downtown Augusta as a slum to fund Municipal Building renovations. They said they also became tired of Russell’s presentation of a budget with a significant deficit that he expected them to choose how to fill.
Russell counted among his accomplishments the city’s ability to maintain “a high level of services,” despite slow growth,; completion of Augusta the convention center, the sheriff’s administration building and expansions at Charlie B. Webster Detention Center,; revitalization in the Laney-Walker historic district,; and the arrivals of Costco, Cabela’s and Starbucks’ new soluble products plant