More than a week has passed since the Augusta Commission voted 7-0 to oust County Administrator Fred Russell.
But it is no secret that several commissioners are gunning for General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie to also get the boot.
The simple fact that MacKenzie was kicked out of the legal meeting to discuss terminating Russell pretty much says it all. Instead of receiving legal advice from MacKenzie, commissioners chose to be advised by Senior Staff Attorney Wayne Brown.
You would have thought MacKenzie might have learned a few things watching his predecessor and former boss, Augusta General Counsel Chiquita Johnson, being forced out a few years ago.
If the Augusta Commission thinks MacKenzie is not their cup of tea, they should stop and think back to 2008-2009, when Johnson was at the helm of the law department.
The commission was so desperate to show her the door, they threw money at her to leave in 2010.
Back then, it was Russell who was giving Johnson an ultimatum: Get fired or resign with a nine-month severance package, including benefits and more than $1,180 in cash to terminate her existing lease.
Resignation never looked so sweet, but Russell said it was the Augusta Commission’s best option.
“Generally speaking, a six-month severance package is available for department heads and its general counsel and myself during a termination,” Russell said back in 2010.
Wow. Russell was possibly predicting the future, even back then.
But Russell suggested the Augusta Commission should be even more generous than a six-month severance package.
“Because this is not a termination, I am seeking approval for a nine-month severance package,” Russell told commissioners. “That basically gives her nine months with benefits. In addition to that, there was a lease termination payment that I had agree to of $1,187.14.”
Very reluctantly, the commissioners voted 7-3 to approve the package.
Since Johnson’s annual salary was $125,000 a year, under the severance package, the county had to pay Johnson approximately $94,000, plus benefits and the $1,180 in cash to break her lease.
It was a painful amount of money to spend for the commission to terminate its relationship with Johnson, but Insiders say it was well worth the money.
After all, a few months before she resigned in 2010, Johnson’s legal recommendations were getting beyond ridiculous.
In a 2009 proposal she called the “Civil Defense Ordinance,” Johnson suggested she be given the authority, as a “peace officer” to investigate any city department, commissioner or any person dealing with Augusta’s government.
Maybe Johnson did not realize that by proposing this ordinance, she was really stepping on then-Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength’s toes.
After working for Augusta-Richmond County for more than two years, she should have known not to mess with the sheriff. You will lose that political battle every single time.
In a second proposal, Johnson suggested limiting the media’s access to commissioners by putting restrictions on the number of news cameras in the commission chambers and forcing reporters to interview Augusta commissioners only in a designated “media room.”
Johnson managed to make a mountain out of a molehill.
All commissioners wanted was to move their committee meetings to the larger commission chambers to make more room for the public. That’s all. But the next thing you knew, her proposal suggested that news crews were creating a “danger” to commissioners and the public and therefore the committee room should be converted into a media room.
Now, many municipalities around the state and country have such rooms, where the meetings are broadcasted live and reporters have access to documents and a wireless connection for their laptops. It’s not unheard of by any means.
But where Johnson stepped in it again was when she suggested that all reporters must conduct interviews within the media room instead of the commission chambers or in the hallway entering the chambers.
That was simply crazy. It is way too restrictive.
When something controversial happens, did she really think commissioners were going to politely walk into the media room to answer questions? Of course not.
All commissioners would have to do is walk straight out of the commission chambers, down the hallway and into the elevators to avoid answering questions because, according to Johnson’s proposal, the media couldn’t question them in those areas.
That was clearly against Georgia’s Open Meetings Law.
So, considering the commission’s past experience with Johnson and now that their support of MacKenzie appears to be also waning, is there a lesson Augusta can learn here?
Maybe it is time to rethink the whole in-house law department requirement.
As readers may remember, the creation of an in-house law department was part of the consolidation law back in 1996.
But for several years after consolidation, developing an in-house law department was something commissioners put on the back burner because the county was comfortable relying on private law firms to provide the legal advice it needed.
For about 10 years, Jim Wall, a highly-respected attorney from the law firm of Burnside, Wall, Daniel, Ellison & Revell, served as county attorney until the Augusta Commission decided to create an in-house law department.
Before Wall, his former partner, Bob Daniel, had been the county attorney for approximately 20 years prior to his sudden death in 1993.
Under their legal representation, Augusta was a force to be reckoned with. Lawsuits were often dropped because attorneys did not want to mess with Augusta.
Even to this day, Wall and his firm are heavily relied upon for large cases against the county, such as the class-action lawsuits involving Augusta’s private probation system and the State Court of Richmond County.
It might be time for the Augusta Commission to stop and think: Is the in-house law department really working? Is it worth the money?
If you look at the law department’s track record so far, those are not hard questions to answer.