How many lives does Fred Russell have?


Several Augusta commissioners this week found it impossible to believe that after more than 10 years of working in Augusta-Richmond County, City Administrator Fred Russell has never had a formal performance evaluation.
This is particularly surprising considering that Russell has been dangerously close to losing his job on a few occasions.
Back in the summer of 2011, several of his “bosses,” including commissioners Bill Lockett and Alvin Mason, sought to send Russell packing after he secretly gave more than 40 employees raises while everyone else around the county government were given furlough days and a reduction in pay.
But Lockett and Mason didn’t have the six votes needed to fire Russell. Only then-commissioners J.R. Hatney and Matt Aitken joined Lockett and Mason in their quest to rid the Garden City of Russell.
This time around, it may be a different story if the commission decides they aren’t pleased with Russell’s evaluation.
The tide appears to be turning and several commissioners, both white and black, are openly discussing some concerns they have about Russell’s leadership.
And Russell seems to be feeling the pressure. At a recent meeting this week to discuss the city’s proposal to designate a 594-acre area in the downtown district as a “slum” and establish an Urban Redevelopment Area that would allow the city to borrow $26.5 million in tax-exempt bonds, Russell got downright feisty.
Several commissioners told Russell they thought the commission was ill-prepared to handle the public outcry over the city’s proposal to designate an area a “slum” in order to save approximately $2 million renovating the Municipal Building on Greene Street.
Russell took the criticism for more than 20 minutes until he finally couldn’t hold his tongue any longer.
“This group as a body makes the decision,” Russell told the commissioners. “I didn’t do this on my own. I was told to go put this (plan) together. You might not have agreed with that, I understand that fully, but this is not something that Fred decided would be a good thing to do.
“This commission voted to adopt a plan that I recommended that is based on saving dollars for the taxpayer in the long run. Y’all didn’t have to vote for that.”
Augusta Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle responded, “I understand that…”
But Russell wasn’t done.
“Then, don’t blame me for doing what I was told to do,” Russell bluntly said.
When Russell gets backed into a corner, he usually will take the abuse with a smile. He generally likes to play both sides of the commission and then laughs at all of them behind their backs.
But every once in a while, he comes out fighting.
In fact, a few years ago when he first proposed a major overhaul of the city government by suggesting the elimination of 26 positions, Russell presented the plan in a way that forced the commission to listen to what he was saying.
During the three-hour work session, Russell talked for more than two and a half hours.
He left less than 30 minutes for commissioners to discuss the plan that proposed combining certain departments, cutting some city positions and changing the city’s 15-year-old charter.
This approach definitely caught the commission’s attention. But not in a good way.
About an hour into the administrator’s presentation, Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason raised his hand to ask a question, but he was cut short.
“Is it possible to save the questions until the end?” Russell asked Mason during the 2011 discussion.
Mason said he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to ask questions because Russell hadn’t established a protocol when starting the presentation.
“I would prefer to wait until the end,” Russell told him. “We have a lot of time to talk about this, but let’s get it all on the table and come back and talk about it.”
Mason accepted Russell’s request only to wait another hour and a half before he got a chance to speak again.
Following the conclusion of Russell’s lengthy and often repetitive speech, Mason voiced his disappointment in the lack of dialogue during the meeting.
“Mr. Russell, I will say that you did a fantastic job of utilizing the bulk of the time that was set aside for this,” Mason said, clearly annoyed. “But the point is, in all seriousness, obviously there are some tough decisions that need to be made over time. And obviously today must not have been the timeframe to have that discussion. I am sitting here with about 22 questions on my paper. Obviously we will not get to those today.”
Over the next few months, Mason’s dissatisfaction with Russell continued to grow.
So, if Russell is wise, he will tread very carefully.
Having survived being both the city administrator and deputy administrator for more than a decade is a miracle in Augusta because this town can be brutal.
And when there is a target on your back, you may not want to get too cocky.
There is a long line of extremely qualified former Augusta department heads that can testify that if you’re too vocal, you’ll soon find yourself in the unemployment line.
Of course, then you can always file a lawsuit and stick it to the county.
Don’t you love Augusta?

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