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City retreat focuses new 3-year plan
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For two and a half days the Covington City Council discussed how to direct the city government over the next three years, as part of their strategic planning retreat held at the Georgia FFA-FCCLA Camp. The council didn’t create a strategic plan, but it learned the proper process for how to create one.

Council members discussed what the city needs, which segments of the population are the city’s key stakeholders, how the council could better communicate, and what the city has accomplished during the past three years. For part of Thursday and Friday, city department heads joined in the discussions.

How to Plan
The retreat was run by Alysin and Frank Foster with The Centre for Strategic Management. Originally, the couple had planned to charge the city $5,000 for facilitation, but when price became an issue, the Fosters agreed to reduce their charge to $2,000.

At a pre-meeting for press members, Frank said the whole purpose of strategic planning is to help the city find out how best to meet the needs of its constituents. He said strategic planning has changed significantly over the years. Plans once covered 20 or more years, then 10 years, five and so on; today three-year plans are the model. Tomorrow, plans may have to change every six months.

Frank said the reason a company chooses to use an outside facilitator is to remove the emotional attachment and bias from planning.
“There is a skill to being a facilitator and there are a lot of imposters out there,” Frank said. “What you see (with us) is what you get. We don’t take sides.”

The Fosters interviewed each of the council members separately before the retreat in order to describe the process. Frank said the content is generated by the city; the Fosters simply facilitate the planning process. In addition, the Fosters focused only on strategic planning facilitation, not on working through specific issues and not on conflict management.

The planning for the council builds on training that was given to city department heads and other supervisors earlier this year. The goal is to have a unified team, where the council decides on the long-term goals, the department heads map out those goals and determine how they can be accomplished and the employees carry out the daily tasks that lead to goal fulfillment over time.

The next step after the retreat is for the city to form its core planning team, a 12-person group of people mainly comprised of city department heads and other high-level personnel. This team will use internal and external subject matter experts to help develop the actual strategic plan and will be involved in carrying out the plan over the next three years.

City Manager Steve Horton will put together the team, which will meet 10 to 11 times over the next few months. The core planning team will provide the city council with monthly updates.

City’s Key Stakeholders
One of the most important retreat discussions centered around who were the city’s key stakeholders.

“Everyone is a stakeholder, but not everyone is a key stakeholder,” Alysin said. “Key stakeholders are those who stand to gain the most, or lose the most, if the goals of the city are met or not met.”

The final stakeholder list was composed of businesses, specifically larger industries and small businesses, property owners and residents, specifically the elderly, poor and young people of the county.

The council had an original list of 10 different groups, but after internal conversations and discussion with department heads, the three groups above were chosen.

One interesting discussion was whether to include a group of older, wealthier property owners who may want things to remain the same and have the power to derail city plans. This old guard was not chosen as a key stakeholder, but the council decided it was important to reach out to these conservative figures and keep them involved in the city’s future.

Mayor Kim Carter commented at one point that from an overall standpoint Covington was a poor, uneducated city. She said raising income and education levels would have to be a sustained focus in order for changes to be made.

As far as senior citizens, city officials discussed how the general American population was aging and they agreed more senior housing and infrastructure needs to be added.

At first, only large industries were included as a key stakeholder, but Main Street Covington Director Josephine Kelly pointed out that small businesses are the county’s largest employer and often the key to economic recovery.

Property owners were included because they are by default the city’s taxpayers and customers. In addition, as the economy picks up, much of the vacant commercial and residential land around the city will be ripe for development.

Council Communication
During their time alone as a council, elected officials participated in a communication exercise where they discussed what they needed from each other and other city officials in order to be better at their jobs.

The general consensus was that council members needed more information, more quickly in order to make the best decisions. Members also said they wanted to have more work sessions and talk more individually before meetings to make sure they’re on the same page.

These “working agreements” that were created also included not spending as much time discussing items that were already approved during the budget process and not using the media to communicate to each other.

Agenda items will now include a note about whether they were previously approved in the budget. Currently, the council spends much of their time relearning about and discussing budgeted purchases. The council agreed it would be best to focus on purchases only if they are not budgeted, or if they exceed the previously budgeted amount.

Members agreed to call each other more often about issues in each other district’s so they could become more educated before the meetings. The mayor also said she would try to share more information that she gathers throughout the week.