Originally created 12/05/01

What role did politics play in decision?



The city has yet to hire a permanent fire chief, and the casual observer has been left wondering why, after all the time and money that has been invested in finding someone for the job, the position is still vacant.

After a second no-action vote by commissioners Monday, Al Gillespie, the chief of the Yakima (Wash.) Fire Department, said he was no longer interested in being Augusta's chief.

Outsiders are crying racial politics, in private and on talk radio. But those familiar with city government suggest the problem likely lies deeper than race. Insiders say an ongoing struggle between some commissioners and the city administrator is to blame.

And there's nothing to suggest that similar political turmoil - which has been described as both frustrating and sickening - won't resurface in upcoming budget discussions and hiring decisions later this month.

City Administrator George Kolb has said many times that although commissioners have the final say in hiring, he is responsible for interviewing and recommending who will work for him.

"I'm going to do what I think is right," Mr. Kolb said Tuesday from Atlanta, where he was attending a city conference with several commissioners. "When I'm prepared to bring forth candidates, I will bring them forth."

But commissioners are accustomed to having more input.

When Randy Oliver was the city administrator, commissioners were allowed to interview finalist candidates before a recommendation was made.

"As an administrator, you can't play politics, but you have to know where the politics are," said Mr. Oliver, now the city manager of Greenville, S.C. "You've got to know what's going on. You've got to be politically aware."

Although the 5-2-3 fire chief vote was a disappointment, Mr. Kolb said he was prepared for some controversy: Several commissioners had approached him about keeping the fire chief item off commission agendas - both Nov. 20 and Monday.

"I was asked all kinds of things - to put it on, not to put it on," Mr. Kolb said.

And although he was the one who placed the vote on the Nov. 20 agenda, Monday's vote was requested by a commissioner.

A few commissioners have expressed support for giving the administrator total control over hiring and firing. Among them is Commissioner Bill Kuhlke, who Monday openly accused unsupportive commissioners of micromanagement.

Mr. Kuhlke said the fire chief's vote is nothing more than a struggle for power.

"You've got some commissioners that would like to have all the power and all the control just so they can have an impact on things," he said. "It's not our job to run the day-to-day operations of this government, though."

In the meantime, time and money has been wasted, Mr. Kuhlke said.

The cost of finding a fire chief is approaching the $10,000 mark, based on reimbursement records and advertising bills obtained through the city's accounting and human resources departments.

After Monday's meeting, Commissioner Lee Beard argued the city should hire its finance director first, in part because applications have been accepted from comptroller candidates who aren't certified public accountants. He declined to elaborate on how that might affect the fire chief's position.

If the educational requirements for finance director are compromised, some commissioners will likely try to change hiring standards for the fire chief's position, Mr. Kuhlke said.

"This is just my guess, but if we can't hire someone that meets all the qualifications that we set forth for finance director, that's going to send the signal that they're going to dumb down other positions in county government so they can hire who they want to hire," Mr. Kuhlke said.

Mr. Beard bristles at being accused of trying to tinker with the hiring process.

"I would hate to think that I had the kind of power to defer the selection of a fire chief," Mr. Beard said in response to accusations made during Monday's meeting. "I resent that highly."

Mayor Bob Young - who at one point during Monday's meeting had to stop and read the rules of conduct relating to decorum - said the commission's vote speaks for itself but said he would not involve himself in a commission matter.

"The issue is not about the vote that was taken yesterday," Mr. Young said. "The issue is much bigger, and I think people see that. It's very obvious."

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

"You've got some commissioners that would like to have all the power and all the control just so they can have an impact on things. It's not our job to run the day-to-day operations of this government, though."

- Bill Kuhlke, Augusta commissioner, on Monday's fire chief vote,