Controversial Hiring and Firing at Commission Meeting

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December 20, 2005
In their final meeting of the year on Monday, the Augusta commissioners made Howard Willis the city’s permanent fire chief. You might remember last week they voted to remove the college education requirements for the job. And on a six-three vote commissioners fired Engineering Director Theresa Smith. Now some say both personnel decisions may mean lawsuits for the city. News 12 has the story.

As Augusta firefighters celebrate the appointment of Howard Willis as Fire Chief, one of the city’s top departments is left without a leader after Engineering Director Theresa Smith was fired during Tuesday’s commission meeting.

“She’s done a great job, she’s not perfect by no means,” Marion Williams said.

Commissioner Marion Williams says the six commissioners who voted to fire Smith were out of line.

“If there’s nothing written up on her and her evaluation is good, then how can you justify firing somebody who has a good evaluation every year?” Williams said.

But other commissioners say Smith’s poor management skills, a fifty percent employee turnover in her department, and delays on major road projects were grounds for termination.

“I had worked with Theresa in the past on the greenspace program but once again that was not my decision yesterday. I can’t take any joy in seeing someone lose a job at Christmas,” Deke Copenhaver said.

Williams is now calling for Smith’s supervisor, City Administrator Fred Russell, to also be fired.

“If you are going to fire somebody for not doing their job, their supervisor ought to be held accountable,” Williams said.

“At this level you work at the pleasure of the commission. If six commissioners decided yesterday that I no longer needed to be here, I would have packed up my office and gone home,” Russell said.

Russell had no comment on Ms. Smith’s work performance and says he can’t say exactly why she was fired.

“I think you need to ask those people individually who made that decision because I can only speculate,” Russell said.

Though the city attorney says no, Commissioner Williams says yes, Theresa Smith does have grounds for and will file a wrongful termination lawsuit against the city. In addition, Commissioner Beard says lawsuits may also come from qualified fire chief applicants upset about the appointment of Howard Willis.

“There is a statement that Augusta is an equal opportunity employer,” Beard said.

“People are going to do what they are going to do, we just got the business of the city done yesterday and any potential lawsuits will be handled by Steve Shepard, the city attorney,” Mayor Copenhaver said.