City Ink: Russell was prepared for the witch hunt

As you no doubt know, seven Augusta Com­mission members abruptly fired City Ad­min­is­trator Fred Russell last week.

They’d been working on an exit plan that would have allowed Russell to retire gracefully next year, but then Fred had to get on TV and brag that he was leaving on his own terms. That didn’t sit well with Com­missioner Bill Lockett, who said it made commissioners look like a bunch of buffoons, which, truth be told, is a pretty apt description more times than not.

Nevertheless, the comment gave Lockett and others, such as Commissioner Marion Williams, who never met an administrator he didn’t want to fire, an excuse to try to expedite Russell’s departure.

Lockett and Commis­sioner Alvin Mason tried to get rid of Russell two years ago because he and Lockett didn’t like his city government reorganizational plan and raises to select employees, among other things, but they didn’t have the necessary six votes.

Mason was especially critical of Russell’s recalcitrance in providing cost-savings data and analysis to support his contention that the reorganization would save a million dollars. Ma­son said he wanted more data and a side-by-side
cost comparison on the proposal.

And, of course, he was qualified to question government spending seeing as how he worked for the federal government at Fort Gordon, which, as everyone knows, watches every single dime of taxpayers’ money like a hawk. Oh well.

 

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN: Last week, with three of the 10 commissioners – Grady Smith, Donnie Smith and Wayne Guilfoyle – absent, the rest closed themselves up in a stuffy little room for 2½ hours.

All of the heavy breathing expounding on Russell’s many egregious faults and slights to their brilliant ideas apparently depleted the room of all oxygen, and they entered into a hypnotic mental state written about in psychoanalytical journals and known in the world of psychiatry as the “Salem Witch Hunt syndrome.” After reaching this state of moral indignation, self-righteous frustration and determination to act, they marched out and headed for the restrooms, after which they regrouped and voted to fire Russell.

Russell, meanwhile, was sitting in his office with his feet on his desk fiddling with his smartphone when a reporter barges in and says, “They just voted to fire you. What do you think about that, huh?”

Much has been written and said about Russell not having a clue of what was afoot, but that’s a joke. I mean, if your bosses who’d had been criticizing you for months closed themselves up in a little room and asked you to leave so they could talk about you behind your back for 2½ hours, would you think they were talking about the weather? Oh no, Russell knew what was going on because, regardless of what you think about his management style, he’s very savvy. Way ahead of any of his bosses, in my opinion.

 

PASSING THE BUCK: Commis­sion­ers can give you a long list of reasons for the firing, including Russell’s lack of communication, lack of response to their directives and finding out via the media that the proposed financing plan for Marble Palace renovations included designating downtown Augusta as a slum.

And then there’s next year’s budget deficit, which is ironic because they blamed him for their failure to do their most important job: agree on how to eliminate the $8 million projected shortfall.

 

AN EXERCISE TAX IN FUTILITY: In all, there were nine budget meetings from Sept. 9 through Dec. 3, and a public hearing. In every meeting, Rus­sell gave commissioners a proposal with various options for balancing the budget and asked them to decide what they wanted to do. He said if six agreed on a plan, he’d implement it.

Some said, “Raise taxes.” Others said, “Don’t raise taxes.” One said, “Let’s just go by the 2009 budget.” And, despite Russell’s objections, all but one refused to implement a 2 percent tax on energy used in manufacturing which will cost the government $10 million in tax revenue by the time the tax is fully phased in in 2016.

They kept expecting Rus­sell to magically come up with $8 million, forgetting that unlike Washington, Augusta does not print money.

A perfect example of commissioners insisting on having their cake and eating it too was a Nov. 19 exchange between Guilfoyle and Russell:

“I’m pretty sure I’m right on this. The administrator is supposed to present us with a balanced budget,” Guilfoyle said.

“You’ve got one in front of you, sir,” Russell replied.

“And it’s not a balanced budget, I don’t think,” Guil­foyle said.

“Yes, it is,” Russell said.

“I make a motion to task the administrator to return to this body with a balanced budget with no tax increase and no excise tax,” said Guilfoyle.

Russell told Guilfoyle he could make all the motions he wanted, but that he needed more direction than that.

“I will be happy to bring you that budget, but let me suggest to you at the end of the day I will be making cuts, and I will be doing things you might not like,” Russell said. “I can cut it, slice it and dice it. I have no problem with that whatsoever, but unless you can agree on what I cut – unless you can agree on what I don’t do, it’s just an exercise in futility.”

 

FAINT PRAISE FOR FRED: After the firing, Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver, who was out of the office, issued a news release stating that he thought a lot of Fred, et cetera, et cetera, but that he respected the decision of the commission, et cetera, et cetera.

Why?

 

TWO DAVISES FOR MAYOR? State Sen. Hardie Davis has launched a vigorous campaign for the Augusta mayor’s job, and he could have competition from another Davis.

Commissioner Mary Davis said her phone’s been ringing off the hook with calls from people urging her to run, but she’s waiting for Com­missioner Joe Jackson to decide whether he’ll run for the job.

“Right now, I’m just sitting back waiting for Joe,” she said. “If he runs, I’m happy with that, but I’m honored people have confidence in me.”

 

GOVERNMENT MOVES AT A SNAIL’S PACE, BUT EVEN A SNAIL COULD BEAT THIS: This month last year, after some controversy, six commissioners voted to name the new sheriff’s administration building in honor of retiring Sheriff Ronnie Strength, and that’s the last anybody’s heard of it. There’s been no dedication ceremony or sign on the building.

Hopefully, Commissioner Donnie Smith, the chairman of the public safety committee, will get on it soon.

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