Fire Chief Chris James taking some heat

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Fire Chief Chris James taking some heat

When the Augusta Commission voted earlier this month to increase the entry-level salary of firefighters more than $3,000 to about $30,000 a year, there was a lot of grumbling going on across Richmond County.

Employees throughout the Municipal Building, who have been waiting years for a raise, were clearly upset.

Underpaid deputies in the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office were wondering why they weren’t given a similar boost.

And some residents, who were already angry that commissioners recently approved a 1.75 mill property tax increase, didn’t think the wage increase was necessary.

It didn’t matter to the public that the firefighters’ raises weren’t paid from the same pot as the city’s general fund budget.

Money is money and critics complained that the county needed to tighten its belt in all areas of the government, not spend more.

All of a sudden, Fire Chief Chris James started taking some heat.

During a public hearing on the tax increase last week, one citizen stood up during the meeting and said it turns his stomach whenever the city hires another public information officer.

Several folks in the audience applauded, saying that department directors are “paid enough” and should be able to speak for themselves.

That complaint also took James to task because just last month he hired former WJBF Anchor Dee Griffin as the county’s new fire safety educator and public information officer for the fire department.

While Griffin is a popular and well-respected journalist in the area, many critics balked at the need for the position, particularly with an annual salary of $51,000.

Unfortunately for James, the fire department has long been the target of criticism for the past 15 years.

Prior to James becoming head of the fire department, former Fire Chief Howard Willis retired from the position in controversy after it was discovered his brother, former Battalion Chief Tommy Willis, had run a company that secured homes and structures after they suffered fire damage, according to an investigation by <<IT>>The Augusta Chronicle<<IT>>.

Such a business would require the fire department’s authorization, but Tommy Willis did not have such permission when he started the company in 2007.

The Willis brothers, along with two other deputy chiefs, quickly and quietly retired from the department.

Of course, no one drew more criticism or controversy than former Augusta Fire Chief Ronnie Few.

In July 2002, a Richmond County special grand jury released a 124-page report accusing Few of blatantly misusing taxpayers’ money, mismanaging the fire department, promoting propaganda and lying to government officials about his actions.

The special grand jury spent more than two years investigating what the report called “possibly illegal” activities of the fire department’s leadership during Few’s three-year tenure in Augusta from 1997 to 2000.

The report described Few as an example of Augusta politics at its worst.

So when some members of the public this week started claiming that the firefighters’ raises and the new hire of the public information officer are starting to make Chief Chris James look like the next Ronnie Few, The Insider has to call foul.

While James has been criticized for several actions over the past few years, such as feuding with Gold Cross EMS as well as arguing with Augusta Regional Airport’s fire chief, he is no Chief Few.

And for that matter, the new PIO, Dee Griffin, is no Katrice Bryant.

For those folks who weren’t around during Few’s reign as fire chief, his hiring of PIO Katrice Bryant was extremely contentious.

First off, Bryant was Few’s right-hand woman. She basically never questioned any of Few’s actions and even appeared to help try to cover up his missteps.

When the grand jury report was released in 2002, it came down hard on both Few and Bryant.

“From the beginning there were problems. Few hired Katrice Bryant at ten percent above a salary that was already inflated by an erroneous posting,” the grand jury stated. “The Fire Service then had to eliminate a captain’s position to create the job. And, with that salary, why did Few hire a young, lesser candidate with scant experience?”

According to battalion chiefs at the time, Bryant rarely went to or reported on fires across the county even though one of the primary roles in her job description was “informing the media about fires.”

And even though Few’s vision for her position included grant writing and coordinating various programs, seminars and conventions, Bryant was unable to successfully do much of anything.

“The PIO told different parties requesting help with grants that she did not do grants,” the 2002 grand jury reported. “Under Few’s tutorship the PIO became his personal agent, one who wrote articles in various publications promoting the chief and managed a website that described the chief as nearly divine in his virtues.”

She also apparently worked hard to protect Few by cozying up to certain members of the local media.

“A search of her computers showed anonymous letters written to local publications defending Few’s policies,” the 2002 grand jury reported. “This same search showed a connection with a local weekly paper. Bryant would give them information about Chief Few and what they knew about government; in return, Bryant received unpublished letters sent to the paper criticizing Few (and her). Bryant was a myrmidon when it came to the defense of her boss.”

By the way, that weekly paper was definitely not the <<IT>>Metro Spirit<<IT>>. But it appears the <<IT>>Spirit<<IT>> wasn’t the only news organization given the cold shoulder.

“When a local TV news agency complained that she was not professional or accessible enough, she fired off a memo to Interim Chief (Carl) Scott accusing the station management of being racists,” the grand jury reported of Bryant. “She stated that Chief Few had refused this station an exit interview because of their ‘attitude’ toward him.”

Bryant also apparently enjoyed writing letters in other people’s names, whether those individuals agreed to the letters or not.

“A letter was also discovered on her laptop computer addressed to the <<IT>>Washington Post<<IT>> newspaper,” the grand jury reported. “This letter, written with the name of the Augusta-Richmond County Commission as the authors, defended Few’s record in Augusta and recommended him for the D.C. fire chief job.”

Anyone remember the catastrophe of the 2000 Southeastern Chiefs’ Conference, in which the Augusta Fire Department lavishly overspent and left an outstanding bill of about $25,000?

Back then, Bryant had the nerve to tell the mayor and the public that she and Few had no idea of the costs incurred.

But when the GBI searched the fire department’s offices, agents found data on Bryant’s computer and notes in her own handwriting that clearly indicated that she knew exactly how much the event was costing.

Few and Byrant were also slammed for opening what the special grand jury called a “slush fund” in 1998 without the proper authorization by the county.

“Chief Ronnie Few approached a local bank on his own and opened an account using the county tax I.D. number,” the grand jury reported. “At no time did the chief notify the county finance department of his action. According to signed and notarized bank documents obtained by the Special Grand Jury, Chief Few falsely represented the Augusta-Richmond Fire Department as an incorporated entity under the laws of the State of Georgia. In these documents, Chief Few declared himself ‘president’ of this ‘corporation’ with all the rights and authority thereof.”

The account was only discovered after the grand jury brought it to the attention of the finance department and the county administrator.

“Without this oversight, Few and Bryant maintained a slush fund that was used for whatever they saw fit,” the grand jury reported. “When they obtained goods and services for the ceremonies, they did not follow the purchasing policy of the county. Without having to obtain bids, Few and Bryant were able to spend whatever they wanted with whomever they wanted.”

Before they knew it, the department was drowning in debt.

So, what happened? Few took a job in Washington, D.C., and Bryant, not long after, resigned from her position, leaving the county holding the bag.

Those two did not leave a pretty legacy for future fire chiefs or public information officers.

Therefore, while some complaints might be totally justified against Fire Chief Chris James and his decision to spend $51,000 a year on a salary for PIO Dee Griffin, those two can’t be lumped in the same pile as Few and Bryant.

No way. No how.

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