LEESBURG, Ga. -- When the five members of the Lee County Commission emerged from executive session Friday afternoon, a good hour or so after they'd finished the second of two county administrator interviews in an almost five-hour marathon session, Commissioner Betty Johnson gave an appropriate one-word summation of the grueling process.
"Hallelujah!" an exhausted Johnson said.
Of course Johnson's celebration may have been premature given the two-hour-plus Parks and Recreation Authority meeting that awaited her and her colleagues, but at least the sentiment wasn't wasted. The Leesburg District representative could just as well have been praising the three candidates who stood before the commission and made their cases for the job.
"We have three very qualified candidates with years of experience," Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said. "Our finalists have tremendous job experience, and all of them interviewed very well. It's going to be difficult to make a final decision."
Emerging from an initial list of 34 candidates who applied for the position, current interim Lee Administrator Al Crace, Tony Massey of Frankfort, Ky., and Michael Thompson of Fairhope, Ala., sat for 2 hour, 15 minute interviews Thursday and Friday in hopes of being named Alan Ours' permanent replacement.
A fourth candidate, who withdrew his name for consideration shortly before his scheduled interview Thursday, was also among the short list of finalists. The commission chose not to release his name.
Duffy, who had noted the process of selecting a person to head the county government was new to all five members of the commission, praised the work of Phillip Robertson, a senior vice president with The Mercer Group consulting firm, during the process.
"There's no question The Mercer Group gave us quite a few qualified candidates," Duffy said. "Frankly, we would have been lost without their help."
Robertson, whose office is in Louisberg, N.C., praised the Lee commission for its "cohesive effort" throughout the candidate search.
"When you have a group that's not cohesive, the process can get ground up," he said. "That's not the case with this group. I really enjoyed working with them.
"I think they have some good candidates, and I will remain available to answer any further questions they may have. But I won't make any further recommendations; as I told you the first time we talked, nobody elected me to make decisions for Lee County."
Members of the commission said they would hold further discussions before naming a most-qualified candidate.
"All three of these guys are highly skilled, and they all did a real good job with the interviews," Smithville/Chokee Commissioner Dennis Roland said. "But we could select any of them and when they get on the job they flop. The proof is when they get behind that desk.
"With all things being equal, we're going to look closely again at each candidate and try to figure who will do the best job."
Asked if Crace's three months-plus as interim administrator weighed into the commission's decision, Duffy said it was definitely a factor in his being named a finalist.
"Mr. Crace is a very intelligent man," Roland said. "He knows that his time here could be a plus or minus for him. But he's definitely emerged as a very qualified candidate."
When he accepted the interim position, both Crace and Duffy said Crace would not be a candidate for the permanent position. Crace later said he'd "fallen in love with the community" since being on the job.
The finalists were first reported at www.albanyherald.com.