For more than two hours, seven Augusta commissioners remained behind closed doors discussing the future of City Administrator Fred Russell on Monday.
When the doors to the legal meeting finally opened, county staff were shocked as seven commissioners unanimously agreed Russell’s future with Augusta was over.
With a vote of 7-0, Russell was fired from the position he has held for almost a decade. All without a word from commissioners.
While county employees appeared stunned, no one was more surprised than Russell. He was not even present in the commission chambers during the vote.
After several hours of waiting for the commissioners’ legal meeting to end, Russell had briefly returned to his office down the hallway to wait.
It wasn’t until several news reporters rushed into his office telling him that he had been fired did he become aware of the commission’s actions.
Following the vote, Russell and four of the commissioners who voted to fire him — Commissioners Mary Davis, Bill Lockett, Alvin Mason and Corey Johnson — held a spontaneous, and understandably awkward, press conference about the decision to officially end their relationship on December 31.
Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith, who was not present during the vote, also attended the news conference.
“We need some new ideas and Mr. Russell has been in this position for a long time,” Lockett told half a dozen reporters gathered in the city administrator’s office. “And you need turnover. When you have administrators and managers, those are not career positions… We appreciate what Mr. Russell has done since he’s been here in Augusta, but it is just time for us to move in a different direction.”
Russell, a former deputy police chief from Richmond, Va., came to Augusta in 2002 after he was hired by his friend and former City Administrator George Kolb.
When Kolb left Augusta in 2004, Russell, then a deputy administrator, was named interim city administrator. By 2005, he as given the top seat as city administrator.
A very gracious Russell told the members of the media that he was extremely proud of the work he has accomplished during his 12 years in Augusta, as both deputy administrator and administrator of Augusta-Richmond County.
But he agreed that it was time for him to move on.
“It’s not about me. It’s about anything like that,” Russell said. “It’s about moving Augusta forward. We’ve had this conversation, I’ve spoken to Commissioner Lockett, Mason, Corey (Johnson) and even Donnie (Smith) a couple months ago about the fact that I’m getting tired.
“This is a tough job and I don’t disagree, it’s time for some new ideas and some new vision and mainly some new energy.”
When asked what his plans were for the future, Russell joked that he hadn’t had much time to think about it considering he was just terminated, but he assured the media that he did have other options.
“This is horrible, but I’ve already gotten a call from a headhunter that said, ‘Thank God, you are looking for a job now,’” Russell said, chuckling. “So that made me feel pretty good.”
Russell was also asked what he expects in terms of severance package.
“I will get what I deserve,” Russell said. “And I have full faith that that will happen and that’s just the reality.”
Lockett, who insisted that the county would make sure Russell was “taken care of until he gets his unemployment,” tried to tell the media that the city administrator had not really been terminated.
“We didn’t fire him,” Lockett insisted. “We just ended his tenure.”
Regardless of the terminology of whether he was fired or not, Russell insisted it was time for fresh ideas in Augusta-Richmond County.
“The timing was a little quicker than what I anticipated, but once again, I’m not in charge of that,” Russell said. “We will do what we can and we will move forward. And I think the city has got great times ahead of us.”
Russell even complimented the commissioners’ leadership during his tenure.
“We have a good bunch of people who care about the city. That’s why they do what they do,” Russell said. “We might disagree. We might argue on occasion. But generally speaking, it’s all about moving Augusta forward and I have all the respect in the world for their willingness to do that.”
As the brief press conference ended, Russell returned to his office as several commissioners continued to discuss their decision.
“I don’t really take any real pleasure out of this decision today. To tell somebody that their services are no longer needed, that is not a pleasurable thing to do,” Mason said. “But, at the same time, I think Augusta-Richmond County will be better off moving forward in this manner.”
While Augusta commissioners have been criticized over the past few weeks about having trouble coming to a consensus about important items such as the 2014 budget, Mason said he was proud of the 7-0 vote to terminate Russell.
“One of the things I am gratified about, of the individuals that were here, it was unanimous,” Mason said. “It wasn’t a black thing or a white thing or anything like that. We were unanimous in our decision and we had a solidarity amongst commissioners, so I think that tells you that there was a will for him to go.”
The three commissioners who were absent for the vote on Monday were commissioners Donnie Smith, Wayne Guilfoyle and Grady Smith.
Donnie Smith, who was told about the lengthy legal meeting being held on Monday regarding Russell, raced back to Augusta from a trip to Atlanta to talk with his colleagues prior to the vote.
He didn’t make it in time.
“I am disappointed in the way this was carried out,” Donnie Smith said. “I had been in discussions with Mr. Russell about an exit strategy for him. He had made no secrets about it, he wanted to retire. He told us he had wanted to retire and we had been working on an exit strategy. Certainly something accelerated that. I was not here. I drove back from Atlanta as fast as I could to get here. I didn’t get here in time for the vote.”
There is no excuse for letting Russell learn about his termination from reporters, Donnie Smith said.
“That is not a professional way to do it,” Donnie Smith said. “We had talked for weeks about making sure we handled this in a professional manner when the time came. And then, when the time did come, we fumbled the football.
“It is not fair to Fred Russell, the person, for him to find this out via the news. That is not the way it should have been.”
Donnie Smith said he was also hoping for a transition period between Russell and the new city administrator, but that is no longer an option.
“On one hand, the city has not had new leadership in 10 years, so it is kind of exciting to know that we will have someone new at the helm in the future,” Donnie Smith said. “However, it is a very disappointing to know that we as a government didn’t handle this with tact or in a professional manner. And I am very sick to my stomach about it, to be honest with you.”
One man who had no regrets whatsoever about the firing of Russell was Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams,.
While some of his other colleagues decided to stand behind Russell during the impromptu press conference, Williams said he preferred to stand behind his decision.
“I don’t think you ought to be a pretender,” he said following the press conference. “You fired the man. Don’t acting like, ‘Well, I did it, but I’m your buddy.’ You know, you have a job to do. And I did the job I had to do. Fred has been here too long. It was time for him to move on.”
It was getting to the point that Russell was too comfortable in his position, Williams said.
“He was starting to feel invincible, I think,” Williams said. “I think he felt like he was the top dog and he got pretty good at politicking. He knew how to count six votes. But the buck stops with us and, with a vote of 7-0 to fire him, I think that is a pretty good indication that we agreed it was time for someone new in Augusta-Richmond County.”