The bigger problem

Embattled City Administrator Fred Russell is leaving. So what's left?

Augusta commissioners might think they’re ridding local government of a major problem by firing City Administrator Fred Russell.

But a much bigger problem lingers – the system of government itself.

Russell’s termination came Monday on a 7-0 commission vote, with three members and the mayor absent. It was a surprise depending on whom you ask. The vote itself was unexpected, but the case to fire Russell had been constructed over at least three years.

In 2011 it was revealed that Russell lavished raises on 44 city employees during economically lean times and without the commission’s knowledge. What saved his job was the lack of a suitable replacement.

More recently, in September, Russell floated a proposal to fund Municipal Building renovations by issuing low-interest bonds, with the controversial condition under Georgia law that 594 acres of downtown would be designated a “slum.”

Those reasons – coupled with city maintenance issues and supposed overexertion of influence over some employees – culminated in Monday’s vote.

But as unpopular as Russell was among commissioners, the commission is more unpopular among Augustans.

Our local government is a skewed monument to dysfunction. It lacks united leadership. And that’s the big picture that extends beyond Russell’s firing – there still is no unified vision among city leaders about how to move Augusta forward and to successfully leverage the CSRA’s formidable assets.

Russell had a lot of responsibilities. Execution of those responsibilities was not always flawless. But he possibly was one of the most steadying influences in Augusta’s government. Now he’s gone.

This page has not always been a fan of Russell’s low-key approach to dealing with people. But he survived as long as he did – eight years as city administrator and three years as deputy – because of that laid-back approach. In Augusta’s political climate, that’s an amazing feat. But as long as Augusta’s flawed system of government lives on, the city likely won’t find someone who will last as long.

The next city administrator should be what Russell wasn’t: an adroit people person. Public relations is no small part of the job. And he didn’t seem eager to build the support from within or without that could have kept him in his job.

But exactly who, at this point, would want that job? Ten commissioners in Augusta’s government means the city administrator has 10 bosses – 11 if you count the mayor. Who would willingly take on that nightmare? The job seems almost designed to thwart meaningful progress.

“Working for 10 people is tough, although all these jobs are hard,” Russell said Monday. “Augusta has its particular challenges, most of which are ones we’ve created for ourselves.”

The commission just created its latest “challenge” with that 7-0 vote.

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