BOC picks new county man­ager

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - GABRIEL KHOULI gkhouli@cov­news.com

Newton County has a county man­ager re­place­ment ready when John Middleton steps down later this year.

No of­fi­cial word came from the county Thurs­day, but mul­ti­ple sources said County Trans­porta­tion Di­rec­tor Tom Gar­rett has ac­cepted the Board of Com­mis­sion­ers’ of­fer to be pro­moted to the newly cre­ated po­si­tion of as­sis­tant county man­ager and be groomed to even­tu­ally take over the county man­ager job, the top ad­min­is­tra­tive role in the county.

El­lis sent an email at 4:01 p.m. Thurs­day say­ing “a news re­lease to be ex­pected soon,” but no fi­nal word came.

In an un­ex­pected move Tues­day, the board voted 4-1 to of­fer Gar­rett the as­sis­tant county man­ager job. The vote came af­ter an hour-long ex­ec­u­tive ses­sion for “suc­ces­sion plan­ning.”

Middleton had an­nounced at the board’s last meet­ing he would be re­tir­ing in late 2014, but even some com­mis­sion­ers said they weren’t ex­pect­ing to vote on a re­place­ment Tues­day. Gar­rett took two days to ac­cept the of­fer be­cause there was no job de­scrip­tion or salary for the newly-cre­ated po­si­tion.

The salary and job de­scrip­tion were not re- leased as of press time; the county at­tor­ney’s of­fice was charged by the board with cre­at­ing the job de­scrip­tion and ne­go­ti­at­ing the salary.

De­spite the sud­den­ness of the de­ci­sion, the ma­jor­ity con­sen­sus was that Gar­rett was the best choice among the qual­i­fied in­ter­nal can­di­dates, which also in­cluded the bandy­ing about of Chief Tax Ap­praiser Tommy Knight and Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien’s names. Com­mis­sion­ers de­cided not to wait, say­ing this week they wanted Gar­rett to start learn­ing from Middleton im­me­di­ately, es­pe­cially be­cause bud­get plan­ning was be­gin­ning for the 2014-15 fis­cal year.

Gar­rett, 35, has been trans­porta­tion di­rec­tor since a June pro­mo­tion that put him in charge of the pub­lic works, engineering and fleet main­te­nance de­part­ments. He was hired as county engi­neer in early 2011.

Middleton, who has been with the county since 2000, said in a Wed­nes­day email his “plans are to wrap things up in Septem­ber and take my va­ca­tion time.”

Com­mis­sioner crit­i­cizes haste

Com­mis­sioner Nancy Schulz has been vo­cally crit­i­cal of the process, or lack thereof, for choos­ing the next county man­ager and was the lonee vote against pro­mot­ing Gar­rett.

Schulz said she had “the ut­most re­spect for Gar­rett” but ques­tioned the en­tire process, in­clud­ing not of­fi­cially post­ing the job, not hav­ing for­mal in­ter­views, cre­at­ing a new po­si­tion with­out pub­lic dis­cus­sion, the use of ex­ec­u­tive ses­sion to dis­cuss process mixed in with per­son­nel, and not wait­ing to re­view the cur­rent or­ga­ni­za­tional chart be­fore mak­ing a hire.

At its last meet­ing, the board ap­proved Schulz’s mo­tion to bring in Dave Wills, a lo­cal gov­ern­ment ex­pert for the As­so­ci­a­tion of County Com­mis­sion­ers of Ge­or­gia (ACCG), to hold two work ses­sions in Fe­bru­ary to ex­am­ine all of the pos­si­ble gov­ern­ment types the county could choose be­fore mov­ing for­ward to find a re­place­ment for Middleton. The mo­tion was ap­proved unan­i­mously.

Schulz said Wed­nes­day she asked the board to hold off just two weeks.

“I made it very clear (at the last meet­ing) that it’s not fair to bring in a new per­son with­out ham­mer­ing out the or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­ture, who re­ports to whom and what the job de­scrip­tion is. I was there the last time, when we cre­ated a some­what chaotic sit­u­a­tion, and I didn’t want us to do that again,” Schulz said Wed­nes­day, re­fer­ring to the county’s orig­i­nal de­ci­sion to strip the county chair­man po­si­tion of much of its power and cre­ate a county man­ager in late 2011.

“I hope this is not a fore­shad­ow­ing of things to come,” she said.

Schulz said she ex­pressed dis­com­fort with hav­ing some of the dis­cus­sions the board was hav­ing in ex­ec­u­tive ses­sion, be­cause she felt the board had promised to in­clude the pub­lic in dis­cus­sions about the fu­ture of the county’s gov­ern­ment.

Ra­tio­nale for haste

Mul­ti­ple county com­mis­sion­ers said they had been think­ing about a county man­ager re­place­ment for at least sev­eral months be­cause they didn’t know how long Middleton would keep work­ing given health con­cerns.

Com­mis­sion­ers John Dou­glas, Le­vie Mad­dox and Lanier Sims all said they felt the need to give the next county man­ager as much time as pos­si­ble to learn from Middleton and moved for­ward Tues­day when it was clear the ma­jor­ity of the board wanted Gar­rett.

Sims said he wished the process had started ear­lier but said the board had a bad habit of “kick­ing the can down the road” in the past and “we needed to take a stance to pro­tect the county in the fu­ture.”

Mad­dox said he ap­plauded Schulz’s ar­gu­ment, but he said he felt the pub­lic was at least partly in­volved be­cause at least three com­mis­sion­ers were talk­ing to busi­ness own­ers, cit­i­zens and oth­ers over the past mul­ti­ple months. In the end, the pub­lic de­pends on their elected of­fi­cials to make de­ci­sions in the best in­ter­ests of the com­mu­nity.

Dou­glas, Mad­dox and Sims have all in­de­pen­dently been re­search­ing po­ten­tial can­di­dates and landed on Gar­rett. Dou­glas called Gar­rett a “ris­ing star” Tues­day and echoed the sen­ti­ments Wed­nes­day.

“We’ve been look­ing around and in­for­mally watch­ing dif­fer­ent peo­ple in county gov­ern­ment, and we’ve kind of had our eye on Tom Gar­rett for some time and we were very in­ter­ested to see how he did when moved up to be the (trans­porta­tion di­rec­tor) and he’s done very well there,” Dou­glas said, not­ing there was a slew of good can­di­dates. “We could only pick one, so we picked Tom Gar­rett.”

The com­mis­sion­ers agreed hir­ing in­ter­nally was prefer­able, es­pe­cially with mul­ti­ple qual­i­fied can­di­dates.

“I fun­da­men­tally be­lieve if you pick the right per­son for that po­si­tion, it doesn’t mat­ter what form of gov­ern­ment or what or­ga­ni­za­tional char­ter you present now or later, be­cause you choose the right per­son” Mad­dox said.

Why Gar­rett?

Gar­rett’s suc­cess as county engi­neer and trans­porta­tion di­rec­tor over the past two and a half years were ad­mired by the board, but mul­ti­ple com­mis­sion­ers said his ed­u­ca­tion set him apart.

Gar­rett has an un­der­grad­u­ate engineering de­gree from Ge­or­gia Tech and a mas­ter’s de­gree in pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion from Ge­or­gia State Univer­sity, ac­cord­ing to Mad­dox.

Mad­dox said he be­lieved the next county man­ager needed to be “a per­son of faith. We needed a per­son of strong char­ac­ter and a per­son that is will­ing to ap­ply his knowl­edge and skills,” and he said all three in­ter­nal can­di­dates “fit the bill,” but the con­sen­sus was Gar­rett, who Mad­dox said “had a world class ed­u­ca­tion.

“You have that level of ed­u­ca­tion along with the char­ac­ter, ref­er­ences and the hon­esty fac­tor. He’s been a lo­cal busi­ness owner. He’s an engi­neer, which tells me in my mind he can han­dle com­plex (is­sues),” Mad­dox said. “Then you have the pil­lars of the com­mu­nity (ad­vo­cat­ing for him)… And there’s no noise com­ing from any­where else in the for­est. That kind of made it clear and summed it up pretty quick.”

Sims pointed to the ef­fi­ciency Gar­rett has brought to the pub­lic works depart­ment since be­ing named trans­porta­tion di­rec­tor, get­ting more paving work done with the same amount of work­ers.

Gar­rett’s youth was also seen as a pos­i­tive as com­mis­sion­ers felt he would bring sta­bil­ity to the po­si­tion for years to come.

Be­fore be­ing hired as county engi­neer, Gar­rett, who lives in Wal­ton County, was a prin­ci­pal engi­neer with Lo­ganville-based Al­covy Sur­vey­ing and Engineering for nearly four years. He did con­sult­ing work with the county prior to his hir­ing and was also an as­sis­tant county engi­neer in Newton County from Oc­to­ber 2005 to April 2006.

For much more on this story, in­clud­ing in­for­ma­tion on other po­ten­tial can­di­dates and the ef­fect of the moves on the county bud­get go to Cov­News.com.

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