They’ve worked closely with him, some for seven years, but Augusta Commission members have mixed feelings about former Administrator Fred Russell running for mayor.
Russell managed the city government for 10 years until the commission voted 7-0 to fire him Dec. 9, citing a need to move in a “different direction.” He is expected to officially announce his candidacy soon, campaign manager Duncan Johnson said Tuesday.
The election is set for May 20 for a job loaded with exposure but limited in actual authority by authors of Augusta-Richmond County’s 1996 Consolidation Act. The so-called “weak” mayor can’t set the budget, veto commission actions or set policy, but he or she has a staff of two and a full-time office in the Municipal Building, and near-unfettered access to the administrator.
The harshest words about Russell came from Commissioner Bill Lockett, who will be term-limited in 2016 and has said he will not seek elected office again.
“Fred is a nice guy to have a beer with; he’s very friendly, he’s very personable,” Lockett said, but “Fred was a lousy administrator. He overstayed his welcome.”
While there were previous commissions “that just (went) along with things,” Lockett said the group that fired Russell would not tolerate a mayor who acted against the commission’s will.
“He can’t do anything unless the commission allows him to do it,” Lockett said.
Russell’s experience with Augusta government and widespread name recognition is both an asset and a potential liability, Commissioner Donnie Smith said.
“I think Fred Russell has a great deal of institutional knowledge because he was the head of our government for 10 years,” said Smith, who butted heads with Russell over budgetary issues last year. “The second part of that is people either genuinely like Fred, or they genuinely dislike Fred. There are not a lot of people in the middle.”
If elected, Russell will have to choose a path, Smith said.
Mayor Deke Copenhaver focused heavily, with Russell’s help, on economic development and spoke often on the city’s behalf at national events. He appeared frequently at local events such as ribbon cuttings and played host to monthly community prayer breakfasts.
“Deke has been pretty focused on economic development; what would Fred want to do?” Smith said. “Would he be active in trying to focus on the operations of the government, would he want to be focused on the recruitment of industry, the image the city has, or would he be focused on some of those partisan groups who have lined up to help him?”
Smith said the next mayor must grasp the importance of managing growth from the arrival of the Army Cyber Command at Fort Gordon, which is expected to bring thousands of high-paying jobs to the region.
“Our next mayor needs to be prepared to handle the growth that is imminent due to Cyber Command, the Georgia Regents University-Augusta expansion, and other possible economic development opportunities,” said Commissioner Mary Davis, who declined to endorse a candidate.
None of the commissioners reached last week would endorse Russell or any other of the six candidates running for mayor.
For one, the decision was very easy. Commissioner Alvin Mason is running for mayor himself and, whether elected or not, will not be working with Russell in January 2015.
“The registered voters of Augusta will judge us all,” Mason said. “As a 20-year veteran who defended the freedoms of this nation, it would be hypocritical to say anything negative about Fred running.”
Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson, who is seeking the state Senate District 22 seat being vacated by Sen. Hardie Davis, who is also running for mayor, said Russell had developed many relationships and skills that will help him, including dealing with the commission.
“Fred has a clue,” Johnson said. “He can do mayor all day long. You can’t question his fortitude to do the job.”
As administrator, Russell bore most public criticism over the government’s activities, such as issues arising during construction of large city projects, including the downtown library and convention center.
Johnson said he liked all the candidates and wasn’t going to get involved in the mayor’s race.
Commissioner Bill Fennoy, whose downtown District 1 has been the focus of most city government construction and development initiatives, also declined to endorse any candidate and said he will work with whoever wins.
“I think Fred is very knowledgeable about day-to-day operations and the projects the city has started,” Fennoy said. “We have some good qualified candidates. … Hopefully they are all running to improve the quality of life for all the citizens of Augusta-Richmond County.”
Super District 10 Commissioner Grady Smith, who is facing re-election, backed off from endorsing Russell, though he was the only commissioner to openly disagree
with the decision to fire him.
“I admire somebody who will stick their neck out on the line,” Smith said. “Right now, since I’m in the ball game and having to run my race again, the safest thing is running my race on what I’ve done the past three years and let each other person run their own race – there are good, qualified candidates running
for mayor – and the chips will fall where they may.”
Russell did not respond to a request for comment. The only commissioner who has endorsed Russell, Joe Jackson, also did not return calls seeking comment.