Fred Russell’s vacation days under fire

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When Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams has a beef about something, he is not one to just let it go.
So, last month, when Williams became frustrated that City Administrator Fred Russell consecutively missed a committee meeting and the following week’s commission meeting, he decided it was time to take the administrator to task.
Williams asked that his colleagues to discuss the possibility of making the administrator officially request a leave of absence prior to going on vacation since the Augusta Commission is technically Russell’s boss.
“There has been several times when Mr. Russell has been out,” Williams said at a recent administrative services committee meeting. “And I’ve got no problem with him leaving and taking time, but he’s been out, I think, at the wrong time.”
In Williams’ opinion, Russell should not be allowed to miss a commission meeting or any other important meetings dealing with city business.
Meetings dealing with city business? Isn’t that what Russell does almost every day?
And if he does take a vacation, the commission should be given advance notice, Williams said.
“I think this body ought to know prior to the meeting times to be informed that he is not going to be here because there are a lot of questions that only the administrator can answer,” Williams said. “So I would love to know ahead of time when the administrator is going to be out of a commission meeting. Now, if there is an emergency, I understand some things happen and some things are unavoidable, but to have him out for more than that, I think we need to talk about it.”
As soon as Williams’ finished his lecture, he looked around the chambers at the rest of his colleagues, who appeared to be dismayed by the entire conversation.
No one said a word.
“I guess no one else wants to talk about it but me,” he said. “Everybody else seems to be satisfied, but I’m not satisfied.”
Finally, Augusta Commissioner Grady Smith said he understood that it is impossible for Russell to attend all of the commission meetings, every single week.
“I just want to bring up the fact that I’m in private enterprise and I’ve got about 60 people who work for me and I can’t be everywhere all the time,” he said, adding that the same is true for Russell. “That is why we have Ms. Tameka Allen, who is the deputy administrator.”
Along with Allen, Russell also had Deputy Administrator Bill Shanahan in his office until a few weeks ago when Shanahan accepted the administrator’s position in York County, South Carolina.
Smith insisted that Williams should have more confidence in the department heads and deputy administrator to be able to answer questions when Russell is out of town.
“I think if you check with most of the staff in this Marble Palace here, we have several people who have been here for many, many years,” Smith said, adding that he felt Williams was “nitpicking.”
“I guess I’m not a micromanager,” Smith said to Williams. “I believe you let grown adults do the job that they are hired for.”
In fact, Smith explained that he experienced a huge wake-up call last year when he was in the hospital for two months.
“One monkey doesn’t stop the show,” he said. “We have got qualified people here. If they are not, we have to check it out and move on. But I think we pay the staff here a decent salary and I think most of them, as far as I’m concerned, do a damn good job.”
Augusta Commissioner Bill Lockett, who is chairman of the Administrative Services Committee, seemed to simply want to joke about William’s complaint.
“Commissioner Smith, we can alleviate that,” Lockett joked. “Just don’t give the administrator leave at all.”
“I second that,” Smith said, chuckling. “Don’t go anywhere, Fred.”
Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy joined in, adding that he couldn’t believe the commission was even discussing Russell’s vacation time.
“I’m not sure where and when Mr. Russell scheduled his vacation time, but I know when you schedule flights and when you’ve made reservations overseas, or even in the United States, a lot of times these monies are nonrefundable,” Fennoy said, adding that he believes Russell is simply trying to squeeze in a vacation where he can. “I don’t believe that the administrator or any of the department heads would deliberately take off, especially if they know that something is going to be on the agenda that impacts their department.”
In addition, Fennoy warned that the commissioners would be walking down a slippery slope if they began demanding that Russell and the department heads attend every commission meeting.
“Unless we are going to be responsible to refund the monies that they have put down for plane airfare or for hotel or motel accommodations, if they have made reservations in advance, I don’t think we should require them to be here at a particular meeting,” Fennoy said.
Williams patiently listened as each commissioner spoke.
When the other commissioners finished, Williams insisted they hadn’t heard a word he had said.
“I don’t know where my colleagues get the impression that I said that the administrator couldn’t take a day or time off,” Williams said. “What I’m saying is, he makes the big bucks.”
Russell earns in the neighborhood of $137,000 a year.
“If Mr. Russell makes the big bucks, he needs to be here to be able to answer whatever questions, especially on those official days like commission meetings,” Williams said. “Now, I’m not saying that he can’t be out or he can’t have a trip or he can’t have a vacation. I’m not saying that, but there has been several times when he has not been here and I needed him to answer some questions.”
And in a very rare moment, Williams actually complimented a man who, once upon a time, would frequently draw Williams’ wrath: former City Administrator Randy Oliver.
“If anybody thinks that Mr. Russell can’t miss a day, I had a previous administrator who had one assistant and he made every meeting,” Williams said of Oliver. “I don’t remember a time when he was out.”
Oh, the good ol’ days.
For those Augustans who never met Oliver when he served as administrator from 1996 to 2000, he was probably the most qualified city administrator Richmond County has ever had.
Oliver, who graduated from MIT with an engineering degree and Clemson with an accounting degree, understood the issues facing almost every city department. He could talk for hours about road construction, 42-inch raw water lines, SPLOST dollars or the county’s computer system.
He also didn’t worry about offending the heavy hitters in Augusta. If Augusta Chronicle Publisher Billy Morris proposed a raw deal to the city, Oliver would call him out on it and propose something else. He tried to protect the city and avoid petty politics.
Oliver used to joke that the worst move an administrator could make is to try to play politics.
“If you play around in politics, at some point, the horse you are riding is going to die,” Oliver would say. “And when your horse is dead, you’re dead.”
Who would have ever thought Williams would one day come around to appreciate all of Oliver’s hard work?
And it only took almost 15 years.
In fact, Williams continued to praise Oliver by pointing out the staff differences between Oliver’s tenure as city administrator compared to Russell’s current staff.
“Now, we have an administrator here who has, or had, two assistants and two secretaries,” Williams said. “But my point is, he has a right to take off. I’m not saying that, but on commission days or important meetings, he needs to be here because that is what we pay him for.
“If he wants the job and he wants to get paid, he needs to show up.”