The title of this editorial was supposed to have been, “Good news on uptick in Barrow.” The thesis of that was to have pointed out how much fiscal recovery the county is seeing in both its school system and county governments budgets.
The Barrow County School System just ended FY2013 in the black, something that a few months ago appeared impossible. The county government also appears to be in a much stronger financial position than it was a couple years ago. And both of those governments will be helped next year financially since the skid in property values seems to have hit bottom and have started to make a slow move back up.
All of that was welcome good news for a community that has been struggling through the Great Recession more than many other areas of the nation. At one time during the boom years, Barrow was among the fastest growing counties in the nation. So when the bust happened in 2008, it fell a long, long way down. Unemployment has been very high, property foreclosures have been in the stratosphere and local governments have been torn apart by a huge drop in the tax digest.
Any good news on the fiscal front is welcome.
But then last Wednesday happened. County manager Jock Connell resigned after barely eight months in office. His resignation comes in the last days of the county’s budget process, just a couple of weeks before the BOC is slated to adopt its budget for FY2014.
The timing of Connell’s resignation is surprising, but the rather quick departure of the county’s first hired manager isn’t. When a county switches from a government where an elected official runs the show day-to-day to one where a hired manager is the top official, it often creates chaos. Sometimes, a county has to go through several managers before it finds a good fit and before the elected officials get used to the new way decisions are made.
I wrote about that in a March 2011 Journal editorial which discussed the pros and cons of a county manager government:
“County managers have jobs that exist amid a hothouse environment. Most wither rather than thrive. There is inevitably internal bickering, which always involves the county manager in some way or another. Even good managers find that challenging…. But county managers are no panacea for a weakness in leadership. It looks good on paper, but in the real world, county managers are subject to the same kind of human shortcomings as any elected official.”
While Connell has been working amid some controversies in recent weeks, there wasn’t much public indication that he was terribly unhappy with the job. For the most part, the BOC appeared to support him, even if they questioned some of his proposals.
But there was something not quite right in the current budget process and it’s hard to know if that was of Connell’s making, or if he was just a pawn in a larger game.
This year’s budget process was carefully stage-managed and has been done mostly in secret. While the initial gathering of financial data from departments is often done in private meetings between a county manager and a department head, presenting information to BOC members is generally done in a public meeting so that every commissioner hears the same thing at the same time.
But this year, small groups of commissioners were brought in to meet with Connell and BOC chairman Pat Graham to discuss the budget. The obvious intent was to suppress any open public discussion or debate about the budget and to customize the message individually to BOC members. The only reason to do the process that way is to quell any backlash by “handling” BOC members and not having them all get together at one time.
The apparent goal in doing that was to have a final budget ironed out before any public meeting is held so that the public’s input would be minimized and the BOC itself wouldn’t get into any kind of serious questioning and public debate.
That kind of secretive budget system does not serve the public interest. Taxpayers need to know what their BOC representatives are being told about the budget and they don’t need to have the process manipulated in secret.
It’s not clear if this was Connell’s game, or if he was following the wishes of Graham. And it’s also not clear how the BOC members really felt about this year’s secretive budget process. Perhaps there was more internal disagreement and dissention than we know about. Whatever those dynamics might have been, the timing of Connell’s resignation appears to have been linked to the budget process.
While Connell’s sudden departure is another bad rap for Barrow County’s image, the sky isn’t falling just yet. The county’s stronger financial picture gives the BOC a little breathing room to search and hire someone else for the position.
Connell was a pretty good manager, but he may not have been good fit with this BOC. That doesn’t mean the county manager system of government itself is a disaster, as some now argue. The county manager form of government was never a flawless panacea for what plagues Barrow County, which is an overall weakness in leadership. No manager can fix the problems that stem from that underlying issue.
The coming months will be a real test for the Barrow BOC as it tries to keep the county moving forward, adopt a budget and search for a new manager. But before it begins to search for a manager to replace Connell, the BOC itself needs to decide what kind of manager it’s really looking for and what kind of background that person should have. Connell came from a much larger county, but perhaps what Barrow needs is someone with smaller county experience who is more accustomed to the rhythm of how smaller counties work.
That is the kind of discussion the BOC needs to have right now.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of the Barrow Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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