Austin departs ahead of schedule

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Columbia City Hall officials confirm that former city manager Charles Austin has left his job at City Hall ahead of schedule.

Austin had decided to step down after serving as Columbia city manager for about five years.

That decision was characterized as a retirement even though some of Austin's critics have since said the former police chief was forced out.

Austin had been under fire for months amidst a growing list of revelations about mistakes in city operations.

He had said he would effectively leave office at the end of March.

Officials including Mayor Bob Coble say Austin turned in his keys, cell phone, computer and car and has cleaned out his office.

"He brought a sense of stability. We made great progress in the city in terms of the renaissance, and the projects that we had. Having said that, we had issues in the finance department, had issues in the police department that were very concerning," Coble said.

Coble says Austin told him at a council meeting about two weeks ago that he would be leaving ahead of schedule.

Coble says Austin felt it was time to do that so that people would have a clear idea about who was in charge.

That person now is Interim City Manager Steve Gantt.

Officials say many employees were shocked at Austin's sudden departure. He was working under terms of a one year contract which Coble says was still in effect.

Coble says Austin felt council members needed a clear idea of who is now in charge of city operations.

Critics blamed Austin for a series of money-related missteps, including the city's repeated failure to close its books on time.

"There were some really good points when it came to dealing with our public one-on-one. I think the fact that we're having a lot of situations, we kept hearing that the car's in the ditch. Well the car's in the ditch with no tires. And I think getting communication to council about where we were in the appropriate time was not there," Columbia city councilman Daniel Rickenmann said.

"We needed to move forward with some stability and I think our staff really needs to know that there's some certainty in its leadership so, I don't think that it's odd that he would think that it's probably best for him not to have an extended retirement time, just to go ahead and leave and I thank him for that," Columbia city councilwoman Tamieka Isaac Devine said.

Gantt and the city's deputy finance director now have to sort out a newly-discovered problem with social security deductions.

Bill Ellis told the council that the city has been miscalculating social security withholding on payroll checks since 2001 or even earlier. The city will have to re-pay that money plus interest to Uncle Sam.

Reported by Jack Kuenzie

Posted by Jeremy Turnage