Looking Back: Columbus’ city manager discusses his earliest and most important role model
After speaking for more than 20 minutes to the Columbus Rotary Club Wednesday afternoon, Mayor-elect Skip Henderson started to wrap up his speech.
But he had something he wanted to say to the room that is stacked with business, civic, political and military leaders from across Columbus.
“Before I leave, I want to make one more comment,” Henderson said to the more than 150 people in the room at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. “I don’t think Isaiah Hugley is here and I know he’s a Rotarian. But in a way, that’s good. It allows me to say something about Isaiah and you know that I am not doing it just to flatter him while he’s in here.”
Hugley, who has been the Columbus city manager for more than 13 years, was attending a Georgia Municipal Association meeting in Athens during Henderson’s speech.
“I called Isaiah during the campaign because a lot of folks asked, ‘Are you going to fire so and so? Are you going to get rid of so and so? I called Isaiah so he could hear it from me, that he was my guy,” Henderson said. “Frankly, even after serving 20 years in the legislative capacity, I can’t imagine coming into this job without somebody with the depth of knowledge that Isaiah has.”
Henderson, who resigned his citywide council post in February to run for mayor, didn’t stop there. He left no doubt where he stood.
“Isaiah and I have had a couple of conversations and we are both on the same page,” Henderson said. “We are excited about the opportunity we have facing us. I am looking forward to really turning Isaiah loose. That’s the toughest job I have ever heard of. That guy has got to reinvent himself with every new mayor. Every new mayor that comes in, he has to adapt to that style. So, I don’t know if people really appreciate just how good a job he does.”
It was the second time in a week that Henderson, who takes office on Jan. 8, has offered his support for Hugley. In a Ledger-Enquirer Facebook Live interview on Sept. 5, the mayor-elect also expressed his confidence in Hugley.
“One of the things that I am excited about and people have asked me about is Isaiah Hugley,” Henderson said. “I have a tremendous about of respect for Isaiah. There are very few people in this community who have the depth of knowledge he has about the city of Columbus. I am excited about working with him.”
Hugley has been city manager for more than 13 years and Henderson will be the fourth mayor he has worked under. He was hired by Mayor Bob Poydasheff and has worked for Mayor Jim Wetherington and Mayor Teresa Tomlinson.
On Oct. 1, at 61 years old, he will have worked 34 years with the city. He started as deputy director of METRA, became director and served nine years in the top position of the city’s bus department. He spent seven years as deputy city manager before being promoted to city manager in 2005.
Tomlinson, who leaves office in less than four months after eight years in the city’s top executive position, applauded Henderson for his public support of Hugley during this transition.
“I concur with Skip and I will say that Isaiah Hugley is the greatest single asset in the Columbus Consolidated Government — period,” Tomlinson said Thursday morning.
In her opinion, there is reason Henderson is being vocal about his support of Hugley, Tomlinson said.
“There has been an undercurrent of disrespect for Isaiah Hugley over the years, and to be honest, it has always been quite puzzling to me,” she said. “It is definitely there, but I think it’s isolated.”
Early in her tenure, Tomlinson said she was approached about terminating Hugley. The city manager can be fired by the mayor, but that decision can be overturned by council with six votes. Council can initiate the firing of a city manger without support of the mayor, but it takes seven votes, according to the charter.
“The thing to do was to go after Isaiah, and there were some demands for me to fire him,” said Tomlinson, who declined to say who was making those demands. “There were no complaints in particular. So, I pulled Isaiah’s personnel files. His reviews, many of them done by former City Manager Carmen Cavezza, were glowing.”
In 2011, there had been public outcries to fire Hugley in wake of a malfeasance in the Parks and Recreation Department. Former Columbus Parks and Recreation Department Director Tony Adams and two other men pleaded guilty for their roles in the a scheme to defraud money from the city. Adams, former city recreation services specialist Herman Porter and East Marietta Basketball Inc., Director William Fox enter their pleas in front of Superior Court Judge John Allen in March 2011. Adams and Fox pleaded guilty to felony counts and Porter pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors.
The three men faced charges of defrauding the city by diverting public funds from a city-run basketball team called the Georgia Blazers. Fox for a time was the conduit through which Adams and Porter got money and equipment from sports-gear giant Nike Inc., and those funds should have gone into city coffers instead of into a private account Adams and Porter controlled, police said.
In the wake of that, some people were calling for Hugley’s ouster.
“I had not been in office long and I called Carmen and we talked about how this was taking on a life of its own,” Tomlinson said. “Carmen wrote a letter to the editor of the Ledger-Enquirer. He was strong and bold in his support of Isaiah.”
The push to fire Hugley, which included a Facebook page, never gained any momentum after Cavezza’s letter and strong support from Tomlinson.
Vote of confidence
When contacted late Wednesday about Henderson’s comments to the downtown Rotary Club, Hugley was appreciative of the mayor-elect’s vote of confidence.
“I think he’s simply saying that the charter is clear, and he wants me to do my job and for that job to be done in accordance with the charter,” Hugley said. “... The charter says, ‘Subject to the direction of the mayor, the city manager will dot, dot, dot. Those things are to appoint directors, pull together a budget, manage the day-to-day operations of the city and so on. That is clear in the charter and it’s subject to the direction of the mayor.”
And that does not bother him, Hugley said.
“When you become city manager and you accept that role and responsibility, and you know that you can be fired at any time,” Hugley said. “You know that the average stay of a city manager nationally is five years. I have been challenged — and rightfully so. The city manager should be challenged by the elected officials and the citizens in the community. Do I feel like I have been maligned? No, but I do feel like I have been challenged. When you are challenged, it makes you work harder and get better. Certainly, that has been a benefit to me.”
Hugley also believes that Henderson is setting his expectations for the city manager and his office.
“I think he has definite expectations and that’s performance, accountability, service and trust,” Hugley said. “That’s what he’s looking for from me. I plan to work to fulfill the commitment that I am required to guide our city to be the best that it can be.”