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New Hall County administrator wasn’t interviewed for the job. Here’s why
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Former assistant county administrator Zach Propes has been hired as new county administrator. - photo by Scott Rogers

Assistant County Administrator Zach Propes will take the helm as Hall County’s top administrator in January, but he wasn’t interviewed for the position and commissioners say they made their decision at a retreat after deliberating for about an hour.  

That may seem out of the ordinary when hiring for a position as consequential as county administrator, but it is not without precedent in Hall County. The outgoing administrator Jock Connell was promoted under similar circumstances in 2017. 

Richard Higgins, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said like Propes, they promoted Connell without any interview or search process. Nonetheless, he said, Connell turned out to be a successful leader. He credited him with “changing the course of Hall County,” and said Connell has replaced about a dozen department heads in the last five years.  

But not every commissioner approved of such a quick-and-easy hiring process. Commissioner Shelly Echols ultimately voted yes to hire Propes, but she had been raising concerns behind the scenes about the hiring process — or lack thereof — trying to convince her fellow commissioners that they should take their time, convene a search committee and weigh input from county staff. 

“My biggest concern was not Zach — it was the process,” said Echols, who represents District 3, the largest in the county. “I wanted to make sure that the people of Hall County knew that we had done our due diligence to make sure we found the right person.” 

“We weren’t being transparent,” she added. 

On Oct. 10, the county announced Connell’s retirement and named Propes as his replacement. Connell will stick around until March 31 to advise Propes during the first few months of his tenure. 

Propes was hired in 2015 as director of financial services and promoted in 2019 to assistant county administrator. He earns $166,793 a year. It is not clear how much he will be paid in his new position because his contract has not been finalized, according to county spokeswoman Sarah Crowe. Connell’s yearly salary is $234,605. 

'Blindsiding me with that'

Days before the announcement, commissioners attended a retreat at Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa, where they held an informal vote and decided that Propes was the right guy for the job. They talked for about an hour. Echols said she urged the others to move more slowly, though she declined to say how she cast her informal vote at the retreat. 

Commissioners planned to hold the official vote for Propes’s appointment in January, but they decided to move it up to their Oct. 13 meeting

Every commissioner was apparently privy to this change — except Echols. She said the others blindsided her by proposing a personnel amendment at the beginning of the October meeting, described by Commissioner Billy Powell as a personnel matter, which the board approved in 4-to-1 vote.

The dissenting vote was Echols. 

She said she didn’t raise her hand because she didn’t know what personnel matter they would be voting on. It was about Zach Propes, allowing the board to vote then and there on his appointment. Echols still voted yes to hire Propes, but a video recording of the meeting shows she is the last to raise her hand, and the reason, she said, is that she was caught off guard. 

“What they did, blindsiding me with that, was inappropriate and uncalled for,” she said. “I didn’t know they were going to do that, but I voted for Zach. I knew what the will of the board was, and so at that point it wasn’t worth a public fight over it.” 

She may have thought better of a public squabble, but behind the scenes, she said, tensions ran high and a rift formed between her and her colleagues. She declined to say more, but described the early vote as a form of retaliation, “because I was questioning the process.” 

The other members — apart from Powell, who could not be reached — said they saw no point in waiting until January to hold the vote. They said they had no intention of blindsiding Echols with a last-minute amendment and said they were unaware of any tension between themselves and Echols. 

“There were several of us that discussed putting that on the agenda that night,” said Commissioner Jeff Stowe, whose wife is cousins with Propes’s wife. “I guess we did not let (Echols) know. That’s why she felt blindsided, and I’m sorry that she felt that way.”

“I can't speak to what she would know or what she wouldn't know,” said Commissioner Kathy Cooper. 

Higgins said the same, adding, “I didn’t realize that she felt there was tension. … She might perceive that, but I don’t see it. … I get along great with Shelly.” 

When asked why the commission didn’t interview Propes or consider other candidates, they said Propes was the natural choice to succeed Connell given his role as assistant county administrator, his experience working for the county and the relationships he has built with commissioners and staff. 

“We already had seven years of interviews,” Stowe said. “We’re in meetings with him constantly.” 

Higgins, Cooper and Stowe also spoke to Propes’s intelligence and work ethic, as did Connell, who was responsible for Propes’s annual performance evaluations. In each evaluation, Propes either met or exceeded expectations in every category, according to open records obtained by The Times. 

“I view him to be one of the more ethical, intelligent, hardworking, committed public servants I've ever known,” Connell told The Times. “This county is very, very fortunate to have him at the helm of leadership. … You don’t get a lot of shots at getting a candidate like Zach Propes.” 

Echols didn’t dispute Propes’s credentials, but she said they should have at least interviewed him to gauge how he would lead the county. And with Connell retiring in March, she added, the commission had plenty of time to decide on a successor.

“Zach has done a wonderful job as finance director and as assistant administrator, but I just felt like, I guess with my (human resources) background, that we should at least talk to the guy before we voted on him or named him the new county administrator,” she said. “I wanted to know what Zach’s vision was, what his goals are, what his mission was, if he wanted to change the structure of anything. I just thought those were important questions to ask before we offer a job to someone.” 

Echols will step down as a commissioner Jan. 1 to assume the Georgia Senate District 49 seat following her midterm election win, replacing Butch Miller.

Her seat will be filled by Republican Gregg Poole, an electrical engineer and Baptist preacher who ran unopposed in the midterms. He declined to comment on the county administrator hiring process. 

In an interview with The Times, Propes declined to comment on the hiring process and commissioner discord, but he did answer Echols’s questions regarding his vision and goals for the county. He said he hopes to build on the successes of his predecessors such as Connell and said he doesn’t plan to make “significant changes” in his new role.

“What I am looking to do is be intentional about where we're going and how we continue to grow the organization given the significant amount of growth that we're seeing throughout Hall County,” he said. “How can we make strategic capital investment given the growth trends between the South Hall area of the county and the northern areas of the county where you see two very different growth patterns happening?” 

Propes returned to the word “team,” trying to dispel any notion that he will rule with an iron fist as county administrator. 

“I'm very cognizant of the fact that I am part of a team, and our goal is to deliver efficient and effective local government services to the Hall County community and to provide a quality of life that our residents and our stakeholders are proud of.”