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Posted: January 24, 2014 1:13 p.m.

Garrett accepts asst. county manager job

Schulz, residents question haset in hire, lack of formal process

Update, 1:02 p.m.: Tom Garrett "enthusiastically accepted" the position of assistant county manager and has agreed to a salary of $82,316, according to County Attorney Tommy Craig. The salary must still be approved by the Board of Commissioners.

“Tom was flattered to be offered a new position and he enthusiastically accepted. I will make my salary recommendation to the Board and I expect it to be well-received, of course the Board makes the final decision," Craig said Friday afternoon in an email.

The recommended salary for the assistant county manager position is in between Garrett's prior salary of $78,644 as transporation director and current County Manager John Middleton's salary of $85,987, according to Craig.

Original story, Thursday, 10:30 p.m.: 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 retiring in late 2014, but even some commissioners said they weren’t expecting to vote on a replacement Tuesday. Even 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 released 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. 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 lone 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. She didn’t mention any specifics from the executive session.

She also said she was bothered by all of the unanswered questions, a stance echoed by some readers on CovNews.com and Facebook.

“Is this the way we really want to run a county of 100,000?” Schulz asked rhetorically.

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.

“I actually wanted somebody from Jan. 1 of this year. Every day that person needs to be trying to learn as much as possible, and even then I don’t think that person will be 100 percent ready,” Sims said. “I think there will still be a learning curve after that.”

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.

“I believe that was achieved last night,” Maddox said, noting Middleton had named succession planning as one of the county’s top priorities month ago at the county’s first strategic planning session.

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.

“That’s probably one of the bigger things, his education and his ability to learn quickly,” Sims said. “Nothing against any other person we were thinking about, but it just seems like in everybody’s mind he was the guy. Without having a big formal process, it’s amazing we all came to that conclusion.”

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.

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,” 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.”

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

At Tuesday’s meeting, Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he has appreciated Garrett’s work to date.

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.

Other candidates
Though there were no formal candidates, Chief Tax Appraiser Tommy Knight and Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien were mentioned as possibilities. When asked if they were aware they were a potential candidate for the county manager position Knight said yes, while O’Brien said no.

Neither candidate underwent a formal interview or evaluation.

“(I) did not know it was being discussed last night, and I did not know I was one of the ones being considered for this position, but I am honored the BOC considered me,” O’Brien said in an email to The News. “Tom is a great choice and I look forward to working with him.”

O’Brien was officially named fire chief in December 2012, serving as interim fire chief since May of that year. He first started as a volunteer firefighter in Newton County in 1993, before being hired by DeKalb County, where he reached the level of battalion chief, according to a previous story. He returned to Newton County Fire Service in September 2007.

Knight has been chief tax appraiser for 15 years, working with Newton County for 18 years total and in his field for a total of 25 years.

Both O'Brien and Knight have been lauded by commissioners in the past for running their departments well.

Budget effect
Chairman Keith Ellis, who is in charge of roads under the county’s charter, said he would like to see Garrett stay on the public works payroll until the budget process kicks off and said the “incremental raise” Garrett gets could be covered from public works budget.

Ellis did not anticipate a replacement transportation director in the short term and hoped Garrett would finish up some remaining transportation projects as he transitions into the assistant county manager position.

However, the details need to be hashed out because Douglas said his understanding is that Garrett “won’t be over in public works anymore.”

As far as the assistant county manager position, Douglas was clear it is meant to be a temporary position.

“The assistant county manager is a very temporary position only designed to give Tom Garrett overlap with John Middleton,” Douglas said in an email. “The next county manager will have to prepare a budget proposal for the commission for fiscal year 2016 on his own, so this overlap is vital for a smooth transition. Preparing a $50 million budget, working with the department chiefs to refine their requests, listening and taking guidance from the Board of Commissioners and ensuring we use the money we have wisely are not easy tasks.”

Douglas said the exact nature of Garrett’s role when he becomes county manager is not set.

“Whether he retains the almost complete authority John Middleton has over county government departments remains to be determined,” Douglas said in an email.

Maddox said he’d like to see the county’s reporting structure change so fewer of the current 16 to 17 department heads report directly to the county manager. He wants the county manager to be able to have time for more high-level planning.

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