AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – The Means Report sits down for a conversation with Augusta’s city administrator before he leaves for his new job. Odie Donald II has been at the helm for the better part of the last eighteen months. Viewers know him well, he’s on “News Channel 6” a lot, commenting on the city’s business.
Brad Means: Odie, thank you so much for coming back to “The Means Report”, we had you right when you took the job, and man, time has flied.
Odie Donald II: Yeah.
Brad Means: Flown.
Odie Donald II: Well, I’ll tell you, it’s been a great journey. I’ve always been thankful for you for having me, and really thankful for the citizens of Augusta, for really entrusting me and the commission, and our mayor, with leading the city and the county, and making sure we deliver services well. So, excited to join you.
Brad Means: Thank you, and I do wanna talk about what your job entails, so people can understand the role of City Administrator, but let me ask you about this new job.
Odie Donald II: Yeah. Chief of Staff-
Brad Means: Yeah. Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, Andre Dickens. What led you to that job?
Odie Donald II: You know, it has been an interesting journey. I’ll tell you, I wasn’t looking for a job. I really love what I’m doing here, and the great work that we’ve done, but I think the mayor is a native Atlantan, just like I am. I think that the citizens there have really been calling for strong, improved government, and making sure that the delivery of services, really, is no longer transactional, but transformational. And so, I think my past, as well as the great work that we’ve done here in Richmond County, made me a quality candidate to really support his vision. And ensuring that it’s carried out in the way that he desired. So I received the call, and could only say yes.
Brad Means: What does a Chief of Staff do? And just to give us a feel, how many folks will you be responsible for? So you’re overseeing a government right now, along, of course, with the commission and mayor-
Odie Donald II: Yeah.
Brad Means: of let’s just say, 3,000 employees?
Odie Donald II: Yeah.
Brad Means: What’s it like in your new job?
Odie Donald II: Yeah, so about three times the amount of employees here, the general fund is about $197 million. In Atlanta, it’s closer to about $800 million. So it’s a much larger government, about half a million people, where we’re at about 206,000. So the scope and the breadth of the work is larger, but very much the same. Instead of solely being over operations there, a lot of the work is really more in carrying out the mayor’s vision, and ensuring not only operations, but council relationships and things of that nature, are kind of the key aspects of the role. So it’s a little bit of the same flavor, here in Augusta, with a little bit of added responsibility.
Brad Means: Well, you know, I know ultimately the buck stops with the mayor.
Odie Donald II: Absolutely.
Brad Means: But once you’re on the job, will you sort of be that go-between, between him and his team, and the community?
Odie Donald II: Yeah, absolutely, I think that’s the vision for the role. Now I will say, you know, Mayor Dickens has his own vision. And so being the chief executive there, he actually can kind of change up the roles, and adjust them a little bit. And so, never speak on behalf of my electives, but I think traditionally, that’s the role. I know that he’s already started to insert me in some of those conversations, and I believe he utilized me, kind of like a baseball utility player, wherever he desires for me to be, that’s where I’ll be.
Brad Means: You know, one thing I remember about our first interview, is that you were taking a brand new job in the middle of a pandemic.
Odie Donald II: Yeah.
Brad Means: A pandemic that continued throughout your career here, still does. Are you pleased with the way Augusta is handling this?
Odie Donald II: I am, you know, I’ll tell you, one of the things that I’m really excited about is, you know, we see that the numbers are dropping. We see folks are getting more comfortable with vaccinations, and really having a better understanding of the data. And I definitely give credit to our mayor, and commission, for that. I think, you know, that they invested about $1.5 million, hoping to get about 10,000 shots. You’ll actually learn this next Tuesday, that we actually doubled, you know, their goal, and came in about $500,000 under budget, from what was proposed. So I think, you know, the way that Augusta is handling the pandemic, is not only efficient, but I think has involved our citizens and really brought people forward. So I’m really excited about it, and thankful for that.
Brad Means: Do you think it changes the way that the government operates forever? Not just here, but in Atlanta, will we see Plexiglas? Will we see more virtual meetings?
Odie Donald II: You know, to a certain extent, I do. I believe that, you know, government has always lagged behind technology, it’s not something that we’re proud of. But I will say that, you know, the pandemic has really forced us to come into the 21st century, in how we communicate with our residents, how we provide people access to government services. And so, you know, I think we’re moving in that direction. Not sure how long we’ll be masking up. I think it’s important here in Augusta, because our vaccine rates still do lag a little bit behind everywhere else. But I do believe that the safety and health precautions will likely be something that’s a part of our fabric.
Brad Means: You accomplished a ton in the better part of 18 months, it’s been a busy year-and-a-half for you. What are some things, Odie, that stand out, where you say, “You know what, I’m glad we got to leave that mark on Augusta.”
Odie Donald II: You know, I’ll tell you, there’ve been everything from… people don’t even talk about some of the things that have happened anymore, because they’ve been so smooth. I mean, we were up-in-arms about the judicial split, and you kind of forgot that that even happened, because of how smoothly our commission has really navigated that. I think SPLOST-8 is one thing I’m really proud about. I mean, we’ve got $250 million invested in all of the holes in the infrastructure, related to government services, so that’s a really big deal. I’ll tell you one thing I’m really excited about is our Fire Chief. I mean, there was a lot of hoopla about that process and whatnot, and now, he’s not only getting glowing reviews from the union, which is very important, but also our commission, and many of the naysayers, and our community loves him. So really excited about that pick, because fire is the one area of public safety that the commission oversees, and to see that work, I’m really excited about. But I’ll tell you, the one thing that I am more excited about, and really thankful for the community, and the commission, more than anything else, is how we have actually navigated to include the public in all of our public decisions.
Brad Means: Yeah.
Odie Donald II: I think a government that doesn’t include the public is just a government that doesn’t work, you know? It’s a sham of a government. And so here, everything from our budget, to the future of the city, our capital projects with the Build Augusta dashboard, I could go on and on about all of our transparency activities. Even our new credit card policies, and things of that nature, were brought before the public. That doesn’t happen in government everywhere, and so I’m really excited about that.
Brad Means: We talked about the challenge, and the opportunity, of working with so many different commissioners; 10.
Odie Donald II: Yeah, yeah.
Brad Means: The mayor. How has that gone? And I’ll say this to the viewers, you’re universally liked. You know, people appreciate your hard work, and they like you as a human being. Has that made it easier to get along with all those folks?
Odie Donald II: Well, I mean, I think so, but I think that’s because this commission is uniquely constructed, especially the commission that I came in under, and those that were originally here. You know, we’ve got a group of people that are extremely passionate, not only about their districts, but about the county as a whole, regardless of where they operate from. I think their passion… And I think I do have a unique ability to lead, and so that combination together has really worked well. I do think that, you know, there’s some opportunities that the government will have, and so will our people, as they, you know, vote in the next folks that come in. I know that, you know, Commissioner Zayas’s term is limited. I think there’s a very strong candidate out there for District 4, that folks are looking at, and District 6, you know, you have Commissioner Hassan moving on. And so you’re gonna have some opportunities to really continue to mesh and mold this team together. And so, it’s gonna be really exciting to see.
Brad Means: What challenges does the next person face? I mean, you made it look easy. What would you say to them?
Odie Donald II: Well, I think we’ve raised the bar.
Brad Means: Yeah.
Odie Donald II: So that’s gonna be something that is gonna be a challenge from anyone. I think, you know, the expectation that information is clear and concise, is going to be very important. I also believe that, you know, you do have 11 bosses, you know, and that’s a difficult challenge. I think that I am a staunch believer in the council manager form of government, where the city manager, or county manager, actually has the authority to hire and fire department heads, while policy-making is the responsibility of the elected officials. And so that has kind of been the world that I’ve grown up in. But Augusta’s a hybrid, you know, you have a little bit of the situation, where the mayor and the commission actually do all of the hiring and firing, but the mayor doesn’t have much authority. So I think, you know, some of those nuances can make it more difficult to manage, because the mixture of government is neither one or the other-
Brad Means: It’s true!
Odie Donald II: …so you gotta navigate your way through.
Brad Means: Well, I wanted to ask you, very quickly, about some issues that we cover a lot on the news.
Odie Donald II: Absolutely.
Brad Means: And we just have about 90 seconds left, real quickly; blight and streetlights. Do you think we’re on the right path to clean up our town, and make it better lit?
Odie Donald II: Blight, without a doubt, I think the commission’s policy is in place. And just last year we knocked down around 70 houses, and now we have money in SPLOST-8 to build them up. But I will say with streetlights, on Tuesday, we’ll be presenting an opportunity, to not only add infrastructure, but to also create a dedicated funding stream. That’s gonna be important, and hopefully the commission takes swift action.
Brad Means: You are off to the big city. Has anybody behind the scenes, you know, grabbed your arm and said, “Please take me with you?”
Odie Donald II: Yeah, actually, a few have, I’ll tell you, I mean, you know, Atlanta’s a very attractive place. But I’ll tell you, when we say, “The big city”, Augusta, while we’re a couple hundred off from being the second largest city in the state, Augusta is the greatest economic opportunity in our state. And so, if it was not my hometown, and if it was not a mayor who, I believe, staunchly in his views, and the direction that he’s going in, I’m not sure there’s any place else in the world that could have taken me from Augusta.
Brad Means: Well, your legacy is strong in this town, Odie Donald II, and you will be remembered for so many positive things. I appreciate getting to know you.
Odie Donald II: Absolutely, thank you.
Brad Means: Odie Donald, the city administrator in Augusta, soon to be the Chief of Staff for the mayor in Atlanta, Georgia.