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Our Views: Commissioners, take the high road
New Hall leaders should learn from earlier mistakes, act with wisdom, caution
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson

With the new year comes the promise of change, and personal resolutions to do so are a traditional part of the turning of the calendar page.

County governments don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but change soon will be evident there as well, with two veteran members of the Hall County Board of Commissioners relinquishing their seats to newcomers.

Dick Mecum, former long-time sheriff of the county, replaces Tom Oliver as chairman of the board, while Jeff Stowe takes the District 4 seat formerly held by Ashley Bell.

No doubt both new members will bring their own ideas to the commission, and their own philosophies about governing. That is to be expected, and in fact is what voters indicated they wanted when they made their choices earlier this year.

Hopefully, however, the reformatted commission will have learned a lesson from two years ago after the last election, when two newly elected commissioners joined with Bell to turn the operation of the county government upside down just days into their tenure.

Almost immediately upon taking charge of county government in 2011, commissioners emptied out the top management offices of the county, terminating County Administrator Charlie Nix, Assistant County Administrator Phil Sutton and Finance Director Michaela Thompson. At the same time, they replaced County Attorney Bill Blalock, at least on an interim basis, with an Atlanta law firm.

It was clear that certain members of the commission had worked together to plan a coup that would maximize the power of a new three-member majority. That such actions created chaos at the top level of county government apparently was not a consideration.

Commissioners Craig Lutz and Scott Gibbs were new at the time; Bell was experienced and should have known better.

Sadly, those employees terminated by the new regime were solid, capable administrators. They had done nothing to warrant losing their jobs and suffered by being used as pawns in a power play meant to show that the newly elected officials sitting on the board were determined to stake out their own territories.

In the case of the county attorney, commissioners spent thousands of dollars more than necessary over a period of four months before deciding that Blalock’s firm was, in fact, the best choice for the job and reappointed it to serve the county. It was never made clear why commissioners felt it necessary to hire an interim firm from Atlanta with rates that, in some cases, were double what had traditionally been paid.

The commission also turned to interim help for the administrator and finance director positions before hiring full-time employees to fill both months later.

In the end, a lot of money was spent unnecessarily, the administration of county government suffered and the art of governing took a back seat to politics.

The events as they unfolded should offer a cautionary tale not just for newly elected commissioners, but to all of those taking office for the first time in January.

There is a difference between the rhetoric of the campaign trail and the realities of responsibility, just as there is a difference between good politics and good governing.

As candidates, it is easy to point fingers and pick apart decisions made by others, just as in the weeks between election and taking office it is easy to strategize and develop plans of action. But until you enter the office to which you are elected and have full access to all the relevant data, it is difficult, if not impossible, to completely understand the inner workings of any governmental office. This is particularly true for those with no prior experience working within the government who are new to public service.

We fully expect new officials at every level to put their own personal stamp on the offices they have been elected to serve, but we hope they will do so with full knowledge and understanding of the decisions being made and the impact those decisions may have. The candidates who won election in November will have a minimum of four years to make their positions known; there is no need for the sort of rash action that set the county government back for months at the beginning of 2011.

The commission, in particular, has many defining issues of significant import to tackle in the year to come. It needs to do so with all its members fully aware of their own roles and cognizant of the issues at hand. In this instance, we need to learn from the past and not to repeat it.