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Hall commissioners find calm after stormy year
2011 started with fire, but board members have settled into a routine
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The year played out like a Hollywood buddy comedy for the Hall County Board of Commissioners — quarreling over differences in the beginning, some teamwork along the way and mutual respect at the end.

The results were rarely funny, though.

In January, verbal sparring highlighted the commissioners' public meetings, as new members challenged the old guard.

Hall County resident Doug Aiken, who has attended commission meetings for 11 years, said meetings in the past had been contentious but never to the degree portrayed earlier this year.

"This was the worst I've seen," he said.
Now, commissioners are far more complimentary toward the men that, just months earlier, were heated political rivals.

"It started off not the way I would have liked," said Hall County Chairman Tom Oliver at the final meeting of the year on Dec. 8. "But at the same time, at today's meeting there's a dedication to the welfare of Hall County and doing what we think is best. And I commend this group for pulling together in that direction."

Following Oliver's lead, the other commissioners took turns commending the others for the work done and overcoming the earlier obstacles.

When it came to Commissioner Ashley Bell, he kept it short and sweet.

"Amen to all of that," he said.

When asked to explain the short answer, he said, "Sometimes it's best to leave well enough alone."

A tumultuous year
In the words of Commissioner Craig Lutz: 2011 "started off with a bang" for the commission.

At the first meeting, Lutz and Commissioner Scott Gibbs, both newly elected, joined Commissioner Ashley Bell in moving to oust County Administer Charley Nix, as well as the assistant administrator, finance director and county attorney, Bill Blalock. Blalock has since been reinstated.

The three said the move was to provide better leadership for the county and cut the county's compensation to top-level officials.

It didn't go over well with Oliver or Commissioner Billy Powell, who both supported keeping the existing county leadership.

During that first tense meeting, commissioners traded barbs and talked over each other.

"I never thought working with new commissioners would be without challenges," Powell said at the time, "but now I'm just afraid it'll take quite a while until trust is reinstated."

The animosity did not stop there.

Lutz tried to strip Oliver of some voting powers, and then he battled to cut partial funding to the planned Cool Springs Park because of concerns about long-term costs. Lutz motioned for a new vote on the issue in March, trying to revisit a previous vote, but Oliver refused to accept it.

The stakes got higher during the budgeting process this summer. County staff and commissioners grappled with an $11.5 million budget deficit.

The commission ultimately voted on plans that cut jobs and reduced employee benefits. Oliver voted against the budget, favoring to raise taxes.

By this month, though, commissioners came together to vote unanimously on what seemed poised to be a controversial issue — forming new commission district lines.

"District maps highlighted how far we've come," Bell said, since each commissioner had a different idea of what the map should look like. "It took until the last second to get it done, but everyone was functioning off the work we had done. We were able to come out with a compromise to cap the end of the year."

A little learning goes a long way
So how did the commissioners go from the heated fighting at the beginning to the complimentary statements at the end?

Commissioners say it was all about opening communication and getting to know each other.

"You see five commissioners that have learned a lot about each other," Bell said.

As Bell explains it, the dynamic of having new commissioners who campaigned on a platform of shaking things up facing off against sitting commissioners who were opposed to many of those changes was part of the catalyst to what transpired.

"We didn't handle everything perfectly," Bell said. "People were new and the challenges we were facing were new."

Looking back on his entrance as a new commissioner, Gibbs admitted some naiveté in how government works.
"You start out and you're going to change the world," he said. "And then it's not always as it seems on the inside."

Gibbs and Oliver, who were on opposite ends of issues at the beginning of the year, worked together on the Glades Reservoir project.

Oliver said that collaboration, as well as teamwork among other commissioners, helped established better rapport.

"I wish I could tell you this moment where we all shook hands," Oliver said.

But it turned out to be a process.

"We all just came to a realization it was bigger than us," he said.

Gainesville City Councilman Bob Hamrick has served as an elected official for the city for 42 years.

Hamrick said it's not uncommon for turnover in an elected board to bring some degree of conflict. He said the longer those officials have to develop relationships, the easier it gets to work through conflict.

"It's like being in a family, if you have siblings you know how far to push your position," Hamrick said. "You become comfortable in learning how to get to the same goal cooperatively."

Lutz said it took a while for the "lines of communication to open up." Still, he said, "the results speak for themselves."

"We closed an $11.5 budget gap without raising taxes and with a minimal impact on service," he said.

However, not everyone thinks that more agreement among officials is necessarily a good thing.

For Aiken, who describes a "fascination" with local politics, the new tone doesn't exactly put him at ease.

"I tend to be more questioning when everyone agrees," he said.

He said when commissioners are speaking up and disagreeing with each other, at least he knows they're "thinking independently and representing their districts."

Looking forward: Fewer outbursts, not fewer disagreements
Not one of the five board members interviewed by The Times, though, thought every vote would be unanimous moving forward.

In fact, at the last meeting there was a 3-2 vote on whether to award a contract for the Glades Reservoir environmental impact study without a competitive bid. Lutz and Bell opposed it.

However, there were no sharp words or outcries over the decisions.

Lutz said what he thinks has probably changed for good is the level of combativeness between officials - not the number of disagreements.

"It's important, I believe, to have differences of the opinion and debate," Lutz said. "I believe all of the commissioners share the same goal for Hall County — service the people in the most efficient way for the betterment of the county."

But not every commissioner agrees on how to get there, he said.

On Wednesday, Hall County sent out a public notice to announce that all five commissioners were meeting for lunch this Tuesday.

Hall County spokeswoman Nikki Young said the lunch was at the invitation and expense of Chairman Oliver.

Lutz said he appreciated the gesture and doubts such an event would have been possible months before.