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Our Views: Leadership void could be problems for Hall County

POSTED: July 10, 2011 12:30 a.m.

Now that the smoke has cleared from all the last-minute wheeling and dealing that resulted in a county budget for the coming year, a couple of things seem obvious.

The first is that while a new spending plan is in place, no one is really sure exactly what it's going to mean for the county government or whether it's going to be doable.

The second is that dealing with the new budget is going to take some exceptional leadership skills at top county administrative positions, and there aren't currently any leaders sitting in those spots.

Two weeks after its adoption, there are still many questions about the ramifications of the budget, and intelligent discussion of its impact is almost impossible.

What happens in two months if the YMCA and the Boys/Girls Club decide they aren't capable of taking on county recreation programming? Both are great organizations, but we aren't convinced they can take on all that privatization of entails.

What happens with the intergovernmental agreements and multi-government financing on programs like the Red Rabbit with the county reducing its portion of funding? What happens when reductions in staffing keeps vital county services from being provided?

For those and dozens of more questions, there are no answers, at least not yet.

Unfortunately, there also are no answers to the question of who will fill the administrative leadership void atop the county government.

Since the poorly conceived termination of three top county employees in January, commissioners have known they had to find replacements. Half a year later, there is no indication we are any closer than we were then, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance packages and interim replacements.

The interim finance director brought on board to crunch numbers for the county has now gone, even though she was offered the opportunity to stay. The interim county manager will soon be leaving. He too has said "no thanks" to an offer to stay longer.

No wonder. These were well respected professionals who proved to be good at their jobs. They are smart enough to understand that the current county commission is more interested in pursuing the agendas of some of its individual members than in providing good government for the people of the county.

Any doubt as to why they didn't find the possibility of remaining on the job in Hall County an offer they couldn't refuse?

As the outgoing interim finance director noted, certain decisions made in the budgeting process were not considered "best practices" in financial management. Of particular concern to her was the decision to do away with emergency contingency funds from the budget and rely on county reserves if necessary, even though some would suggest current county reserves already are less than they should be.

When two new members joined the current board in January, there was immediate action taken to terminate the county manager, assistant county manager and finance director. Now we are faced with the very real question of whether, given the commission's track record, there is any real likelihood of attracting candidates for leadership that are better than what we had, or even as good. Given that what we had at the time was very good, the odds of doing better are unlikely.

Will top-tier candidates for government management jobs want to work for this commission? Probably not. But there is always the chance that some personal friend or business connection of a commissioner will get consideration for an open post. Hall County deserves so much more.

Despite knowing for months that hires have to be made, the county apparently is no closer to filling its administrative management void. There has been talk since January of using the Carl Vinson Institute at the University of Georgia in the search, but that hasn't been done. Guess there isn't much urgency for doing so when you have a group of commissioners who want to make every day-to-day decision anyway.

By virtue of the fact that he is the only commissioner elected by countywide vote, Chairman Tom Oliver would seem to be best positioned to take charge in the absence of top administrators, but the trio of Ashley Bell, Craig Lutz and Scott Gibbs have made it clear they have little respect for Oliver or his countywide constituency.

And Commissioner Billy Powell, who once fought to keep the Cool Springs park open in his district, must now be thinking more about re-election than governing. How else to explain his vote for a budget that may mean the park can't be opened at all.

Maybe if the four commissioners who supported the budget would spend a day using the Red Rabbit, or volunteer at the senior citizen, or better yet take food to homebound residents who depend on the Meals on Wheels program, maybe then they would better understand what critics of the budget cuts were trying to say.

Half of the contingent of four commissioners who voted for the 2012 budget have but six months experience on the job. Cutbacks in personnel have reduced county staffing in all departments. The spending plan for the coming year has no contingency money for emergencies. The position of finance director is vacant, and that of county administrator soon will be, unless unexpected hires are quickly made.

Add to the mix the fact that the two agencies with which the commission hopes to reach a deal for providing park and recreation services - the YMCA and the Boys/Girls Club - are also operating with interim executive leadership and have financial woes of their own, and you can see the challenge facing the county government in the near future.

You would think, since a majority of the commission was planning as far back as last November to replace the county's top management, that a plan would be in place for doing so by now. But, alas, you would be wrong, which unfortunately is no longer surprising when dealing with this county commission.



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