Stunned. Shocked. Unfazed.
That’s how most Augusta commissioners summed up their feelings about former City Administrator Fred Russell’s announcement this week not to run for mayor of the Garden City.
During an exclusive interview on the Fattz and Cher Morning Show on 96.33 Kiss FM on Tuesday, Russell said he has changed his mind about running for mayor for “personal reasons.”
Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith said he was driving to work when he got a phone call telling him that Russell had decided not to enter the mayoral race.
“I was stunned this morning,” Smith admitted. “My initial reaction is this: Politics is a tough row to hoe. And you open yourself and your family up to innuendo, and to criticism and personal attacks, whether they are true or not.”
Hearing false or misleading statements about yourself or the ones you love can quickly change someone’s mind about entering a race, Smith said.
“Sometimes you just sit down and say, ‘You know, life is too short to have to fight things that are maybe not true, not fully true or just a plain, flat out lie,’” Smith said. “And people say those things about you because they have an agenda. They are trying to advance their own personal agenda. So, with Fred, there was obviously something in his mind that said, ‘I don’t want to do this.’”
While Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams said he was equally surprised about Russell’s announcement, he felt there was more behind the former administrator’s decision not to run.
“I got a call this morning that he had changed his mind about running and it kind of threw another red flag up. I wonder why? Why has he suddenly changed his mind?” Williams asked.
Just this week, Williams received a stack of documents that he requested to be copied off of Russell’s computer hard drive, but he was less than thrilled with what the files contained.
“It was all fluff and stuff,” Williams said, explaining he received documents such as emails Russell sent to a couple of secretaries and photos of the improvements being made to the municipal building. “I requested five years of information and all you have is 100 different emails. There is nothing to it.”
Williams insisted that Georgia law requires certain records to be retained for a specific length of time and he believes that Russell, or someone in the Information Technology Department, may have violated that law by deleting some of the information on the hard drive.
“Mr. Russell was in a top position in this government and I’ve been told he has admitted that he deleted documents on his computer,” Williams said. “If that’s true, that threw up the red flag even harder and made me look even more.”
“I think it is criminal,” Williams added. “We are talking about paying Mr. Russell a severance package. I don’t think we owe anything because this could be criminal.”
After all, Williams pointed out that the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office looked into accusations that he had taken a copy of Russell’s computer hard drive back in 2007.
But after looking into the allegations, the sheriff’s office determined that Russell’s computer had not been compromised.
“Former Sheriff Ronnie Strength sent his deputies to talk to me because they thought I had hacked the system and I told them I didn’t,” Williams said. “We need to send the sheriff or District Attorney Ashley Wright to investigate this because Mr. Russell can’t do that. That property belongs to the government.”
Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason, who has officially announced that he is running for mayor this May, said he was unfazed by Russell’s decision not to run against him.
“I really don’t have a reaction,” Mason said. “It doesn’t really change anything I have to do. I doubt that his supporters are my supporters, so I’m still going to do the same thing I’ve always been doing.”
In fact, Mason said he fully expects to see several more individuals announce their intentions of vying for the mayor’s seat prior to March 7 deadline when candidates officially must declare they are in the race.
“This position takes someone who is going to say what they mean and mean what they say,” Mason said, adding that he has served on the Augusta Commission for seven years and was mayor pro tem for two of those years. “I know the issues, I know the people and I know the things that need to be corrected.”
However, Mason said he was concerned about the allegations against Russell that he possibly deleted files on his hard drive.
“It’s a strange situation because first of all, any files belong to the government, and there are statutory regulations that state that those files should be kept for a certain period of time,” Mason said. “If, in fact, Mr. Russell has admitted to erasing those files, I think he is in violation of our ordinances and our statutes and I’m not sure what could be done about that civilly or criminally, but that is something that we need to look at very, very closely.”
In addition, Mason said he is also disturbed by the fact that both Augusta’s General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie and Interim City Administrator Tameka Allen insisted a few weeks ago that William’s request for a copy of the hard drive could be extremely time consuming and costly for the county.
“It is about: How much resources does it take to comply with a request of this nature?” MacKenzie told the commission two weeks ago, adding that attorneys in his department would have to review all of the documents on the hard drive to weed out those files which may contain confidential information that can’t be disclosed. “That is where there is a substantial cost that could be involved when you have thousands of documents and thousands of pages of documents.”
The reality is there were only a few hundred documents found on the hard drive, Mason said.
“I’m more concerned with the fact that, two weeks prior, our attorney, as well as the interim administrator, said there was a voluminous amount of information on those files and it was going to take a lot of resources to make it happen,” Mason said. “And then all of sudden, there is nothing there. So that troubles me more so than Fred himself.”
Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson said he wasn’t even aware that Russell had changed his mind about running for mayor until he arrived at the commission meeting on Tuesday afternoon.
“I was really surprised,” Johnson said. “I knew he was under a lot of pressure after I found out yesterday that he allegedly deleted his hard drive. That was also surprising.”
Johnson said if Russell did in fact delete those files, he will need to explain his actions to the commission.
“At the end of the day, he shouldn’t have done it,” Johnson said. “I don’t know why people do what they do, but it happens and he will have to deal with the consequences of it: good, bad or indifferent. But it makes you wonder.”