No history of poor performance could save Russell

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No history of poor performance could save Russell

For more than a decade, City Administrator Fred Russell has somehow managed to avoid ever having a formal performance evaluation by his 10 bosses: namely, the Augusta Commission.

Now that the Augusta Commission is finally developing an evaluation process for Russell (along with the other two city employees who work directly for the board), it is funny how past criticisms of Russell may actually play in his favor this time around.

Specifically, some of the harshest criticism of Russell came back in 2010, when many of the then-Augusta commissioners felt they had no choice but to vote to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed by former city engineer Teresa Smith for $125,000.

The reason: While Smith was working as public works director, Russell never gave her an unfavorable performance evaluation.

In fact, Russell acknowledged during the 2005 meeting that he had recently given her a favorable review.

“If she needs to be fired, then the administrator, who is her immediate supervisor, needs to be fired as well,” Augusta Commission Marion Williams told the board back in 2005.

Commissioners accused Russell of not properly documenting problems he or the public were having with the public works department under Smith’s leadership.

Sound familiar, guys?

If the Augusta Commission hasn’t provided Russell with a formal evaluation in more than 10 years, the board can’t point to any documented failures by Russell.

The commissioners should have taken their own advice and backed up some of their criticisms of Russell in writing. Otherwise, it’s pretty useless to complain about them after the fact.

But many of the former Augusta commissioners have not forgotten the role they believe Russell played in Smith’s legal actions against the city.

Whether you are a supporter or critic of Smith, things were clearly a mess from the very beginning.

When Smith was first hired as public works director, she was facing an uphill battle.

Most people in the city thought that she wasn’t qualified to be the new public works director. That was no secret.

Some of the public works employees, specifically many of the engineers, were so upset about her hiring that they immediately left the public works department to work for Augusta’s utilities department.

As the years went by, the engineering department was flooded with complaints from developers and builders working with the city. Smith began to make enemies very quickly. And some of these enemies were sitting on the commission.

Specifically, former Augusta commissioners Jimmy Smith and Don Grantham never hid the fact that they did not think Teresa Smith was doing a good job.

Before Teresa Smith was dismissed in 2005, she openly accused Grantham of micromanaging her department by directly calling then-engineer Errick Thompson if he had a problem he needed addressed.

“I believe, Commissioner Grantham, that I had a conversation with you in the hall early in the year of 2004, where I conveyed that I had some concerns about the level of calls that Errick was getting directly and the impact that it was having on his day-to-day duties,” Teresa Smith said during a 2005 subcommittee hearing on the future of her department. “I shared with you my cell phone number and asked that those questions, concerns or issues should be brought to the attention of the director.”

Smith’s directness ruffled Grantham’s feathers.

By December 19, 2005, it was all over for Teresa Smith. Grantham was tasting blood.

“We’ve had, on several occasions, many of the contractors and engineers in Augusta come down and indicate to us what an unprofessional and unmanageable department that we had as far as our engineering department goes,” Grantham said in 2005.

He told his colleagues that it was time to fire Teresa Smith.

The only person who stood up for Teresa Smith was Williams.

He warned his colleagues that they were driving the city straight towards a lawsuit.

“And I’ll testify for Mrs. Smith, too. In a Cincinnati second,” Williams said. “Because it’s wrong.”

Williams said the truth was that Teresa Smith, the city’s first black public works director, was never given a fair shake.

“I think it is low down and dirty for us to sit here and act like we don’t know what is going on,” Williams said. “We just want to go back to the good ol’ boy system that we had 40 years ago.”

And his proof was the fact that Teresa Smith had never received an unsatisfactory performance evaluation from Russell, Williams insisted.

But Williams’ argument still couldn’t save Teresa Smith’s job.

With a 6-3 vote, Teresa Smith was gone in 2005. Only commissioners Betty Beard, Richard Colclough and Williams voted against the motion.

The firing of Teresa Smith was a huge controversy in Augusta because she was the first black public works director, as well as the first female public works director.

In fact, after the vote, several members of the audience who supported the director of engineering were outraged that then-Augusta Commissioner Bobby Hankerson voted for the firing along with the five white commissioners.

“You’re a thorn in our side,” one man yelled.

Hankerson insisted he simply did what was best for the city.

“I think the only way that the engineering department is going to move forward is for us to have new leadership,” Hankerson said in 2005. “When it gets so that that your own staff won’t work with you and the state DOT (Department of Transportation) representatives have problems with you, it’s time for a change.”

There have been many department directors fired over the years in Augusta-Richmond County, but the termination of Teresa Smith is one that is frequently discussed, even almost 10 years later.

And the main reason many people think she got a payout from the city is because Russell didn’t do his job. He never gave her a poor performance evaluation.

Well, commissioners, if you have a problem with Russell, it’s time to ask yourselves: Who hasn’t done their job this time around?

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