Interim Deputy Administrator Steve Cassell has only been on the job a couple of months, and while he may be a fresh face in his current position, he’s far from a stranger when it comes to Augusta government. As Assistant Director of Traffic Engineering, Cassell has spearheaded the city’s program to streamline Masters traffic and has managed several large road projects, which made him just the sort of guy commissioners were looking for to assist Interim Administrator Tameka Allen in the wake of the commission’s decision to fire longtime administrator Fred Russell late last year.
“I think they looked at the directors and they were slammed busy and then they looked at the next level,” Cassell says. “You had to look at who could complement her skill set. I’ve got big things going with Georgia DOT, so I’ve got a great relationship with Georgia DOT and state government. Then there’s the TIA or the TSPLOST or whatever you want to call it. I’m heavily involved in that. Then dealing with the ice storm clean up. I was involved in a lot of the big projects from an operational standpoint.”
Though the announcement didn’t come as a complete surprise, the timing of it did.
“We’d been talking about it and I’d been approached, but it had been a couple of weeks,” he says. “I kind of came in for two or three commission cycles thinking today is going to be the day. And the one day I wasn’t up there, I literally came off the elevator and someone in the hallway said they’d made a motion to make me interim deputy, and I said ‘Oh – okay.’ At that point it was a surprise.”
He listened to the vote from outside the doors.
“I heard eight votes and I thought, ‘Who didn’t vote for me?’” he jokes. “But it was 8-0, so it was fine. I thought if it was 8-2, I might want to reconsider.”
Though he enjoyed being in traffic, he says he’s also enjoying the expansiveness of his new role.
“I’ve always liked being involved in things,” he says. “But you realize just how big government is, how many different services we provide and the struggles of each department. When I was in traffic, I somewhat had tunnel vision.”
“But we’ve got a lot of really good people,” he says. “It’s not like I never thought we did, but my exposure to them was limited.”
That said, he’s aware the city is quickly losing a lot of valuable institutional knowledge.
“When you lose that, it’s tough,” he admits. “You like to be able to go to the guys who have been here 30 years and ask what happened back when.”
Even with the eight years he’s been in the city, the amount of information he’s acquired sometimes surprises him.
“When I first got into traffic, I’d look at that big map and think, ‘I’m in charge of all this?’” he remembers. “But now, people say a street and I can drive right to it.”
Born in West Virginia, Cassell bounced around towns along the Ohio River as a kid because his father was a construction engineer involved in building hydroelectric power plants. He went to high school in suburban Columbus, college at OhioState and eventually moved to Atlanta before finally taking the assistant director of engineering position with the city.
It was a big adjustment, both personally and professionally.
“What are the most stressful things in you life?” he asks. “Changing careers, getting married, selling a house, moving and having a child. I did all that in less than two years.”
Getting used to the city itself took awhile, too.
“It was somewhat of a culture shock when I first came here,” he says. “Go downtown on Sunday morning – nothing. Try to buy a beer – nope. But there was something cool about it, too, because it’s different than what I grew up with. It’s a different pace of life – it’s not quite Mayberry, but it’s definitely a big small town.”
In his position now, he realizes how much of a small town it really is and just how big it can be.
He started about four or five months after Abie Ladson, the director of engineering, who was at the time the only Professional Engineer on staff.
“Very rarely can you make one hire and double the number of Professional Engineers,” Cassell says, noting just how well the two have worked together. “Abie is probably the best friend I’ve ever had. He’s a good boss, he’s a good critical thinker and he knows how to work through complex problems in a short period of time.”
Besides that, he’s not afraid to make decisions, and Cassell says the same is true for him.
He remembers one decision involving a stuck left turn signal during one of his first Masters as being particularly trying. While it wasn’t exactly a mistake, it wasn’t easy telling that to the backed up traffic.
Now, after several years of fine tuning, the relatively smooth flow of Masters traffic is major success.
“I used to get stressed out and really worried about Masters Week,” he says. “But now it’s one of the few times where you get to do a lot of hands on work. It’s when you get to actively manage something.”
Given the relative stability of his assistant director position, is he nervous about the “interim” next to his new position?
“I feel like I’ve got a good relationship with all the commissioners,” he says. “I’ve never had any indications otherwise, and the same with the mayor.”
That said, most don’t expect a new administrator to be hired until after the elections, so he’ll likely get to stay in his position for a few more months regardless. As for what happens after a new administrator comes in, Cassell says that would be up to the new administrator and the commission. Whether he could return to his former position if not called upon to continue as deputy administrator depends on how his relationships mature.
“It would depend on how bad the relationships were damaged,” he says. “You’d almost be a wounded eagle, not to compare myself to an eagle, but if you have what is perceived as a massive public failure and go back and try to have credibility with the public, that’s tough. But I can only worry about what I can control, and hopefully what I can control is good enough decision making to prevent that from happening.”