Term-limited commissioner looks back at successes, disappointments and how close Fred Russell was to getting the axe
It’s hard to believe Jerry Brigham isn’t still on the commission. Discussing the ups and downs of being a public servant from behind his desk at his accounting office on Pleasant Home Road — he once had a constituent call him at three in the morning to tell him it was raining — he seems every bit as enthusiastic about local politics as he did before he was term-limited out of office. Considering the fact that he just finished up his second stint, that’s saying something. His first was in the mid- to late 1990s.
When asked to check off some of the successes in his time in office, it doesn’t take him long to decide where to begin.
“The water is the biggest thing, and I think it’s got the biggest impact economically,” he says. “Prior to consolidation, the old city of Augusta had water and the old county of Richmond had land, and they didn’t get along with each other. It took some raising of the rates and that kind of thing, but we have gone from one of the worst water systems in the state to one of the best.”
With water and sewerage comes progress, he says. And money.
“Back when we first consolidated, I went to Washington, D.C., on a chamber trip and one of the things they were talking about was turning the utilities at the military bases over to the local governments,” he says. “It took us about 10 years, but we now do the utilities at Fort Gordon, and that’s a big deal. A very big deal.”
Not only that, but by looking ahead and continuing the sewage line beyond the Fort Discovery property on Gordon Highway between Gates 1 and Gate 2, the county was able to get a customer of significance to tie in: the city of Grovetown.
As far as disappointments, he says he anticipated a lot more efficiency out of consolidation, though he admits that in some ways it’s proved itself to be very efficient.
“In the last decade, most municipalities’ workforces have grown 25 percent,” he says. “Ours has not. We’ve basically held the same amount of people the entire time, and that’s pretty good. So while we didn’t achieve the efficiencies right off the bat, we are achieving them in the long run.”
Implementing consolidation was the overarching issue of his time on the commission, and the recent reorganization was a long, contentious chapter of it. Not only did the commission wrestle with aspects of it for the better part of the year, the process nearly claimed longtime administrator Fred Russell, who angered much of the commission in August 2011 by giving pay increases to several employees who took on additional duties because of the restructuring.
So just how close was Russell to getting fired?
“He was close,” Brigham says. “He was real close.”
According to him, the only reason Russell survived was because no one could figure out who to replace him with.
“I think the lack of depth in the management was the biggest thing that kept him from going over,” he says. “[Deputy Administrator] Tamika Allen is a wonderful person, but she really has no experience. If you ask her a question in public, you more than likely aren’t going to get an answer, and the administrator can’t be that way.”
At the time, many suspected that the recently retired administrator from Columbia County, Steve Szablewski, might be tapped, and though Brigham says he was certainly a consideration, it was never a likely scenario.
“There was an effort made, but I don’t think Steve really wanted to come,” he says. “I think he would have come if the price had gotten right, but I don’t think he really wanted to.”
Would Brigham have been willing to make the change?
“Depending on who it was and how much confidence I had in their ability to manage, yes,” he says.
He likens the situation to when administrator Randy Oliver left back in 2000.
“[Deputy Administrator] Walter Hornsby was a caretaker for about a year, but you had [City Attorney] Jim Wall that you could trust to help guide Walter’s decisions,” he says. “We didn’t have a Jim Wall to help guide Tamika.”
Just because Russell dodged a bullet once doesn’t mean he’s going to be able to do it with the new commission, however, even though, to Brigham’s way of thinking, not much has changed.
“Shanahan is weak, in my opinion, and Tamika’s not much better than she was a year or two ago,” he says. “But we’ve got some people hell-bent to go down that path, and if we go down that path, it’s going to be an interesting time, because it took us about a year to find Randy Oliver and it took us about a year to find Randy Oliver’s replacement. A lot can happen in a year.”
It’s not hard to take that as an allusion to the new racial makeup on the commission. Brigham is frank when he talks about the caliber of black politicians currently in Augusta.
“The black community basically sends us government employees and preachers,” he says. “They never send us any black businessmen.”
He says he finds businessmen more willing to do the negotiating necessary to move forward.
“To be honest with you, I found Moses Todd and Willy Mays a lot more compatible to work with to get things done than the current commission,” he says. “I didn’t always agree with the alternatives they put on the table, but at least they put alternatives on the table.”
The current black commissioners, he says, offer no solutions in spite of their public frustration that they are being marginalized. He singles out Commissioner Bill Lockett, who often complains that he’s not included in commission discussions.
“He may not be in the discussion, but the reason he’s not in the discussion is because we already know what Bill is going to say and do,” he says. “Bill has painted himself into a corner. If you already know he’s going to vote no, why bother to waste your breath on him to do anything?”
Though he says there’s a basic philosophical divide in the way they view the role of government, he makes it clear that he believes such divisions have moved beyond political in a way that compromises progress.
“My first time on the commission, we had our divides, but it wasn’t racially divided,” he insists. “You’d have two or three blacks and two or three whites voting together on opposite ends of the spectrum. Over time, with the black commissioners being called Uncle Toms and that kind of thing, that went away.”
Looking at the current commission, he says the body now lacks seasoned political leadership, both white and black.
“They don’t know how to put together a deal, they don’t work together and they don’t have any real plans of where they’re wanting to go,” he says. You Might Also Like: