Originally created 12/04/01

Top pick gives up on job in Augusta



Al Gillespie, the chief of the Yakima (Wash.) Fire Department, traveled more than 2,500 miles and spent three days in Augusta in hopes of being the city's next fire chief.

But after sitting through a few hours of Monday's Augusta Commission meeting, the city's top fire chief candidate told officials he was no longer interested in the job. A vote to hire Chief Gillespie narrowly failed Monday because of lack of support, mirroring a Nov. 20 vote by the commission.

The only difference this time was that both the chief and his wife were sitting in eighth-floor commission chamber chairs, watching and listening as commissioners hurled insults and then - for the second time in three weeks - failed to find enough support to hire him.

"I'm done," Chief Gillespie said after he didn't get the six votes he needed.

The 5-2-3 vote was split along racial lines: Commissioners Lee Beard and Henry Brigham voted no; Commissioners Richard Colclough, Willie Mays and Marion Williams abstained.

Several commissioners who did not support hiring Chief Gillespie said it was poor timing on the part of the city administrator to offer them a fire chief candidate before concluding the city's search for a finance director.

"If we had waited a little later, we wouldn't be going through this procedure," Mr. Beard said.

City Administrator George Kolb said he will present three finalists to head the finance department later this month.

Commissioner Bill Kuhlke accused unsupportive commissioners of delaying the process so they could "get their fingers in it."

"I think it's sickening," Mr. Kuhlke said. "I'm embarrassed. I'm embarrassed for this community."

The commission did manage to secure enough votes to approve a $79,000 salary for a deputy administrator candidate, a position that has been on hold for months. Outgoing District 5 Commissioner Mr. Brigham cast the needed sixth vote for the administrator position, saying it was a matter of salary.

The fire chief's candidate would have been offered a salary of about $98,000.

The deputy administrator's position, which will oversee public safety departments including the fire department, will be offered to Fred Russell, a colleague of Mr. Kolb from Richmond, Va. Mr. Russell, if he accepts the salary, could be in Augusta by early next year, Mr. Kolb said.

Also Monday after weeks of heated debate, commissioners renewed the city's contract with Rural/Metro Ambulance, a decision that was met with applause by an audience of about 25 paramedics and emergency medical technicians.

The contract extension was approved by a 7-2-1 vote with Mr. Williams and Mr. Colclough voting no and Mr. Mays abstaining.

Rural/Metro's contract will extend for another year at a cost to the city of $50,000 per month, plus $36,000 monthly for emergency medical dispatch services. City officials will use the yearlong extension to ask other companies to submit competitive bids for emergency medical service.

All the public safety-related matters - from fire chief to deputy administrator to ambulance service - that were considered by commissioners have been on the table for months. The chief's position has been vacant since Mr. Kolb came to Augusta nearly eight months ago.

Mr. Kolb would not say when he would begin a new search, but said it likely wouldn't be any time soon because there are several other department director positions he is still seeking to fill.

He said he was disappointed by the commission's decision and his only feeling on the matter was that "the administrator ought to have hiring and firing authority."

Chief Gillespie said he, too, was disappointed by the commission's indecision, but said even if the vote had been narrowly in his favor, he likely would not have accepted the job, noting the importance of a supportive governing board.

"I can't give you a firm number, but the ebb and flow certainly didn't seem to be there in my favor," he said of what he was looking for in terms of commission support.

Commissioners who did support hiring Chief Gillespie said they couldn't blame him for withdrawing himself from the running.

"Knowing all this before I got the job, I wouldn't take it either," Commissioner Andy Cheek said.

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215.