Originally created 03/09/06

Ending Smith-fare as we know it



Negotiations with fired city engineer Teresa Smith were going nowhere. It was time for the city to move on.

"Moving on is a thing we don't do very well around here," said one City Hall observer. "But I think we're getting better at it."

It's high time, too.

Augusta taxpayers paid Smith to sit at home for three months after her Dec. 19 firing, while the parties unsuccessfully negotiated a severance package. On Tuesday, commissioners voted 6-1 to end Smith-fare as we know it by taking her off the payroll this Friday. Finally.

Many suspect Smith had little interest in a severance package that might get in the way of suing the city. This week, even Augusta commissioners saw the writing on the wall: A city that's already deficit spending can't well afford to pay people to sit at home.

On the surface, Smith would seem to have no basis for a lawsuit. For one thing, she and other department heads clearly work at the pleasure of the Augusta Commission. For another thing, a majority of the commission was displeased. Her department became a financial bottleneck and an economic development impediment - as attested to by some $100 million in undone projects and a construction community up in arms over her management style, which apparently was not user-friendly.

For a court to even entertain the possibility she was wronged would be to suggest that at-will employees have an implied contract for lifetime employment, which is patently ludicrous.

We will acknowledge that her firing in December was handled less than stellarly, with a messy public debate in the commission chambers. But Smith herself was responsible for much of that, by failing to acknowledge her own shortcomings and to exit gracefully.

Moreover, as city department heads have no right to a lifetime paycheck, neither do they have a right to be spared a messy firing. Smith knew she worked for a public body when she hired on. If she didn't realize that politics is an untidy business, she's beyond naive. Naivete is hardly compensable.

We would only encourage the commission to handle such matters more delicately in the future - and the only way to do that is to take the politics out of it and hand over the hiring and firing of department heads to the city administrator.

Alas, Teresa Smith has become that cause's poster child - though as of Friday, it must be an unpaid position.