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Our Views: A commission coup
Last week's actions by Gang of 3 were merely a grab for power
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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.

The Hall County Commission's "gang of three" last week executed a coup that would have made any Central American military leader proud, wiping out the appointed leadership of the county government in one fell swoop and choosing replacements without even bothering to discuss the changes with the two other members of the board, one of whom is the chairman.

Make no mistake — no matter how Commissioners Ashley Bell, Craig Lutz and Scott Gibbs attempt to justify their motives, what we witnessed was a power grab, pure and simple.

Newly elected Commissioner Lutz admitted as much when he said the forced resignations and/or terminations of the county administrator, assistant county administrator, finance director and county attorney didn't "have anything to do with job performance."

Let that sink in a minute. The people with the most experience and knowledge at the upper levels of running the county government have all been replaced at one time, and it wasn't because they weren't doing their jobs.

Why are they gone? So the new guys can flex their political muscles and show that they are in charge.

This same set of commissioners wasted no time voting to move a proposed library for North Hall back to the town of Clermont because they said the county had made a commitment to the city to build it there, even though there is no compelling evidence that such was the case. So what about the commitment the county made to those employees who were callously tossed aside last week? If job performance wasn't an issue, why have they been replaced?

Before they held their first meeting, the two newly elected commissioners and Bell conspired to offer the job of interim county manager to Jock Connell, who formerly held that position in Gwinnett County. It is a sad commentary that they replaced the solid leadership of Charley Nix before two of them ever had their first official interactions with him as elected officials.

Sadder still that they've chosen Gwinnett, with one commissioner under indictment and the chairmanship vacant due to a grand jury investigation, as the model to follow. Those were Connell's former bosses.

From our perspective, Hall County doesn't want to emulate Gwinnett and Atlanta, though we may be able to learn from some of their mistakes.

If there was a compelling need to get new ideas about how the county should run, why not leave the existing employees in place and bring Connell in as an outside consultant for a few months? Doing so would certainly have been cheaper than the high cost of severance packages and new hires. If Connell had spent three months with those just terminated, we are convinced he would report they were doing a great job.

But again, this wasn't about making the county run more efficiently. It was about who gets to call the shots. And, at least for now, the answer is Bell, Lutz and Gibbs.

That Bell would be involved in such an enterprise is disappointing, but not surprising. He has made it clear for years that his goal is to climb the political ladder, and has shown he is willing to do whatever it takes for that to happen. Bell hopes to look at his county commission job in the rearview mirror as he advances to something bigger, and cares little about those whose fingers he may step on as he climbs the rungs.

Bell is articulate and opportunistic, but sadly lacking in any strength of personal convictions. Those singing his praises for voting to move the library to Clermont would do well to remember he also voted to build it elsewhere. Like a former failed presidential candidate, he was for it before it was against it. And like the current president, he wants to preach a gospel of change, though not necessarily for the better.

Bell recently made big news by switching from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. After this past week, the Republicans may want to give him back. Bell has proven in the past that he is loyal only to his personal ambitions.

For his part, Lutz has thrust himself into the forefront of the local upheaval, inexplicably likening the change in government leadership to changing coaches on a football team. Perhaps to him it's all a game. For those who pay county taxes, who expect services from county government, and who hope that elected officials are concerned with something other than personal aggrandizement, last week's decisions were much more serious than competition on an athletic field.

Lutz is so determined to succeed as a county commissioner that he would have us believe he voluntarily quit a long-standing job with AT&T in order to serve. Of course, he also once claimed to have received a prestigious military medal and had to recant when challenged. Believe what you will.

It is telling that Lutz criticized Flowery Branch's handling of an unsuccessful attempt to force the resignation of its city manager on the same day he was doing the same thing at the county level. When questioned about his hypocrisy, he did what the weak always do: blame someone else.

In this case, the new commissioner inexplicably decided to blame a representative of the governor's office for the fact that the gang of three was rushed into demanding resignations from top county leadership, despite the fact that it has been widely known for weeks that such was the plan. We even expressed our opposition to the changes on this page in November.

As for Gibbs, he seems content at this point to simply follow along with Lutz and Bell. He was gotten the library vote he wanted and shows no disposition to challenge anything being said or done by the other two.

There is no doubt that there is a punitive nature to some of last week's decisions. The trio wants to punish Chairman Tom Oliver, and would, in fact, love to strip him of the power given to the chairman by state legislation, while ignoring the fact that the chairman is the only member of the board who was elected countywide and has more constituents than any single commissioner.

It is distressing to know that elected officials would fire good employees, disrupt their lives and those of their families, as a means of attacking the chairman, but that is the case. And what message has been sent to other county employees?

There also was punitive action taken against the people of West Hall when the new commission voted not to continue with plans for the Cool Springs recreational facility. Another slap, this time at Commissioner Billy Powell.

There was much wrong with what happened last week — back room deals, major personnel decisions that failed to include the entire board, premature promising of jobs, selection of an outside law firm to represent the county on an interim basis, without knowing what the cost for doing so will be — and the list goes on and on.

The county's interim attorneys attended Thursday night's meeting with legal documents prepared on behalf of the county, though they had not yet been legally hired and those responsible had no clue what rate was being charged the county for the work done. But not to worry; a $10,000 cap has been placed on their services.

It will be interesting to see where it all leads. How much will the county spend on severance packages and interim replacements? How long will those interim replacements really remain in place? What promises have been made that have yet to be made public, and to whom?

How long before the new interim leadership brings in more outsiders looking to get their foot in the door of Hall County, consultants perhaps hoping to take over major projects like the Glade Reservoir? How long before Bell parlays his political activities into a new position elsewhere? Or before Lutz becomes such a distraction that his co-conspirators decide he is too much of a liability?

Maybe it's not too late. The commission can still reverse itself, ask those former employees to return and still seek advice from someone like Connell on ways to improve. But such a move would require character and true leadership, so it isn't likely to happen.

Last week's actions were not meant to improve Hall County government, which under the previous appointed leadership had been operating smoothly and efficiently. They were mean-spirited actions meant to raise the political profiles of petty politicians looking for power.

We hope those responsible are proud of themselves, because thinking, reasonable people cannot be proud of them.

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