ALBANY, Ga. -- Even as he prepared to walk out the doors of the city's Water, Gas & Light building one last time, Lemuel Edwards' concerns lay where they had for the 21-plus years he'd served the utility: the ratepayers and the WG&L employees.
"Just like they have been since I came here in 1992, the customers are my main concern as I'm leaving," said Edwards, whose run as general manager of the utility ended Friday. "We're like a family here, and most of our employees are ratepayers themselves. I think that family atmosphere, working together as a team, is what I'll miss most.
"The politics, I've always left that across the street."
A certain level of politics at WG&L now appears to be inevitable. The Albany City Commission is pushing for a bigger role in the everyday business of the utility, and City Manager James Taylor has already taken on the role of interim GM while the Water, Gas & Light board searches for a permanent replacement.
"I want to allay the fears (of WG&L employees) that my plan is to come in here and upset the apple cart," Taylor said. "Lemuel and some of the other folks over there have been taking me around and showing me their operation, and it's quite an operation. Those guys really know what they're doing.
"I go back to the way the Marine Corps does things, and they change command every two years and mid-level command every three years so that they keep getting a fresh perspective. I don't know if that's what we'll get now with this change, but maybe by looking at things a little differently we'll be able to bring some things to the table that will help make WG&L a more efficient operation."
Edwards was working with the U.S. Department of Labor's Manpower Administration when he caught the attention of then-Albany City Manager Steve Roos. Edwards, an Air Force veteran, had been called to testify in the landmark Johnnie Johnson v. City of Albany civil rights case, and Roos asked Edwards to apply for an opening in the city's Human Resources department.
"I'd gotten out of the Air Force because I was tired of the travel, but with the Department of Labor I was traveling as much or more," Edwards said. "My wife had gotten a job teaching in the Dougherty County School System, so I thought taking a job with the city would bring more stability to my family."
Edwards had been working with the city for a decade when then-WG&L General Manager Walter Rodemann asked him to apply for a position as assistant GM that was about to open. He was hired, and when Rodemann took early retirement a short while later, Edwards was elevated to the general manager's position.
WG&L was operating under a $60 million budget when Edwards came on board as GM. Its current budget is $112 million. In addition to providing electricity, clean water and gas for customers in the city, the utility has branched out into telecommunications under Edwards' leadership.
He said providing those services with fewer than 300 employees is a daunting task.
"These aren't jobs just anybody can do," he said. "It takes specialized training, and it takes certified workers. We take providing safe drinking water and keeping the other utilities operating without interruption very seriously. You can't put just anybody in a situation where they're working on gas or electricity. We have to weld gas pipelines with gas flowing at times. ... Not everyone can do that."
Taylor credits his good friend with providing exemplary leadership at the utility and admits that Edwards is leaving some big shoes to fill.
"I've known Lemuel a long time and consider him a true friend," the city manager says. "He did a great job with the city for 31 years, with HR and with WG&L. He has a wealth of experience that will be hard to replace.
"He's told me that he'll answer my calls if I have any questions, and I expect to take him up on that offer."
But don't expect Edwards to try and keep a hand in the operations of the utility that he's helped run for the past 21 years.
"I don't plan to interfere," he said. "I will be available if they need me, but I am retiring. That means someone else will be in charge. I don't expect to be involved in finding a replacement or any of the other operations of WG&L. I expect to spend my time seeing about my farming activities and visiting my daughters and grandchildren. My wife's already retired; she's just waiting on me.
"It's been a privilege to serve the citizens and the ratepayers of this city. I don't regret anything about my tenure. It's definitely been interesting."