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Posted: January 1, 2010 12:00 a.m.

A place to prepare

In response to your editorial regarding the city council's retreat at Brasstown, let's put the blame where it belongs, with me. As the city's HR director, I am responsible for organizing and developing training for city employees. The retreats for the mayor and council are somewhat new, so it's understandable that many citizens may not be aware of the critical need for having the governmental body isolated for a period of time to learn new skills and develop a strategic plan. Most people don't realize that a representative form of government, in this case a municipal corporation, is the only entity that selects its corporate board of directors from the general population, regardless of education, experience or skill, and then puts those directors (elected officials) in charge of administering our public money, managing our utilities and creating ordinances that affect our daily lives. Can you imagine what would happen if Georgia Power, BBT, Verizon or any other American corporation would do this? Successful American corporations select their board of directors based on corporate experiences and the value the person brings to the corporation. Our system of representative government is designed to submit to the will of the people in selecting its directors. Consequently, annual training and focused planning are necessary for elected officials in order to provide the most effective and efficient public services.

Municipal corporations have to deal with a variety of complex problems in providing services to the citizens. Whereas most companies focus on manufacturing a product or providing a service, Covington's elected officials must deal with the complex issues of public safety, public utilities, water, sewer, streets, sanitation and airport management. In addition, quality of life issues such as quality development, affordable housing and sustained economic growth are also critical issues. Every one of these issues is regulated by other government agencies, which control the city's method and manner of service delivery.

For the record, the city manager and his appointed staff is responsible for making sure that compliance with all regulations is made, and it is up to the city's management to make sure that our elected officials are advised as to regulations regarding operations. The retreat for the mayor and council is part of our strategic planning and management process. It allows the council an opportunity to set priorities for handling concerns in the aforementioned areas and gives the city manager and his staff an opportunity to plan collectively with the council for the delivery of the best city services possible. Raising revenue through utility rates and taxes are always discussed, with careful and diligent consideration given to affect of increases on the citizens. I have never attended a training session with the elected officials where concern over the impact of revenue demand on the citizens was not a top priority.

The city's strategic planning retreats are neither a vacation nor an opportunity for relaxation. There is too much work to get done in a short time. Difficult issues must be addressed and a strategic plan established to set direction for the best use of public resources. This collaborative planning and management process has been very effective for the City of Covington. The results speak for themselves.

In the past two years the elected officials have secured additional kilowatts of power in order to avoid substantial rate adjustments during periods of high demand; they have acquired land for industrial and economic expansion around the airport; and they have avoided tax and utility rate increases by encouraging efficiency of operations within the various departments. Furthermore, Covington is one of four cities in the United States where four major departments have received accreditation; it is recognized as a City of Excellence; a City of Ethics; and the city was recently selected by IBM to participate in its Smarter Cities Pilot Program. Financially, the city is sound, not because of the sale of its cable TV system, but because the collaborative efforts of the elected officials and management has led to proactive planning for the current economic times.
No one should ever underestimate the value of collaborative training between elected officials and the city's management.

In regards to the cost of the training, allow me to put this in perspective. The cost of the retreat is less than 1 percent of the city's operating budget, of which the mayor and council set and direct expenditure there from. The cost of training a new public safety officer, either a police or fire, exceeds $80,000 for the first year. The city has more than $300,000 invested in salaries for on the job training a line worker to the journeyman level because of the years of experience necessary to be certified to perform high voltage line work.

Neither of these jobs, though vitally important to the city's operation, has the responsibility that our elected officials have on the day they are sworn in. The training for the elected officials encompasses much more than someone facilitating a meeting. The credentials of the instructors demonstrate a wide range of practical management experience in the government sector. The city's management has worked with this group before and found that their expertise to be exceptional as compared to other consultants that have been used in the past.

If there are some who may be questioning the choosing of the Brasstown facility as the location for the retreat, then let me explain the reasoning. The city has moved its fiscal year to begin on July 1. These means that in order to get the strategic plan developed and complete the required budget, the training cannot be any later than the end of March. It takes at least 90 days to prepare a $120 million plus budget among the 15 or so departments. The city manager and his division directors are responsible for developing the budget around the strategic plan developed by the mayor and council. Local sites for the retreat were already booked for the days necessary for the training. I prepared a list of possible sites for the council committee to review and I recommended the Brasstown facility because the rates were reasonable for the quality of the facility. As far as the location goes, I don't dispute that it could be held at another site for less cost. However, it is my opinion that the scope of the work involved, the importance of the decisions which must be made and their impact on our community necessitate a decent and reasonably priced retreat site for the elected officials.

Ronnie H. Cowan is director of Human Resources for the city of Covington.

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