Lee finalists impressive

LEESBURG, Ga. -- The selection of a new Lee County administrator will certainly be life-altering for one of three men chosen as finalists for the position, but given the current economic climate in Southwest Georgia, the decision could very well have a dramatic impact on the county and region as well.

The Lee Commission announced Friday that it had narrowed its candidates for the position to three: Al Crace, Tony Massey and Michael Thompson. Each met with commission members for two hour-plus interviews either Thursday or Friday of last week, a process that left commissioners with what they say will be a tough choice.

"The interviews certainly didn't eliminate any candidate," Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said. "In fact, each of the three interviewed so well, it made our job even more difficult. We feel confident, though, that the choice we make will be a good one for the future of the county."

Crace has served as interim Lee administrator for the past three-plus months and thus has a better grasp of the county's strengths and weaknesses, its needs and its most pressing issues.

"I think I went into the process with a better understanding of the way the county operates, but I also went in knowing (commissioners) had to look at each candidate from the same perspective," he said Monday morning. "I understood that this was an even playing field."

Asked about concerns raised by area residents over his and Duffy's assurances that he would not be a candidate for the position on a permanent basis when he was hired for the interim post, Crace said neither he nor the commission chairman was attempting to mislead the public.

"I came here fully expecting this to be an interim position only," Crace said. "But I got here, met and interacted with the people of Lee County, and I had a change of heart. I talked it over with my wife first, and then I called each member of the commission individually and told them I was considering seeking the position.

"None of them had a problem with that decision."

In addition to working as president of his own consulting firm, Crace has held top-level management positions in Jackson County, the unified government of Athens-Clarke County, and the cities of Sandy Springs, Gainesville, Athens, Rome, Waycross and Alma, all in Georgia.

With the 2010 elections bringing changes to Frankfort, Ky.'s city government, Massey stepped down from his position as city manager there last week. He'd held that position for the past six years.

"It was apparent that the new group coming into office wanted to go in a different direction, so I'd agreed to step down from my position at the first of the year," Massey said in a phone interview Monday.

Prior to holding that position, Massey served eight years as city manager of Bristol, Tenn. Other positions listed on his resume include assistant city manager in Kingsport, Tenn.; loss control consultant with the Tennessee Municipal League Risk Management Pool; city manager in Savannah, Tenn.; director of economic and community development in Tullahoma, Tenn.; and economic development specialist in Columbia, Tenn.

The candidate said he came to Lee County a day early before his interview so he could get a feel for the community.

"It's a very nice place; I was impressed with the people I met there," he said. "I was also very impressed with the board of commissioners. It's obvious to me they were elected for the right reasons; they want to work to make Lee County a better place.

"I took the time to drive around Lee County and Albany -- see, I said it right -- and I liked what I saw. Seeing those subdivisions in the southern part of the county and the commercial growth is a good thing. I've always been a pro-business, pro-growth manager. I also heard a great deal about the excellent school system in the county. A good school system is an economic growth engine."

Thompson, who earned an MBA from Auburn University, recently left his position as county administrator with the Baldwin County Commission in Bay Minette, Ala., after four years there. Prior to holding that post, Thompson worked in the private sector with Hewlett Packard Company/Agilent Technologies, with Texas Instruments and with Commercial Systems Labs.

In his candidate profile compiled by The Mercer Group, Thompson said he asked the Baldwin County Commission at its last meeting to terminate his contract without cause due to differences of opinion concerning Open Meetings Laws with incoming commissioners.

Messages left with Thompson seeking comments Monday were not returned.

"We have no set date to make this decision, but I think we need to move forward as soon as possible," Duffy said Monday night. "We have a lot of things to take into consideration, a lot to put together, things like salary, benefits, and others.

"We're looking closely at all three candidates, and I guess the biggest plus is that all three are such good candidates."