Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission General Manager Lemuel Edwards explains the organizational structure of the utility to the Albany City Commission.
ALBANY, Ga. — With the the Albany City Commission's surprising decision Tuesday not to contribute money from the city's budget to the initial phase of an Environmental Protection Division-ordered hazardous waste cleanup in the city, a March deadline for starting the project now looms even larger.
The ultimate decisions regarding cleanup of the former manufactured gas plant at 900 Front St. will be made without further input from current Water, Gas & Light Commission General Manager Lemuel Edwards, who has decided to retire effective Feb. 15 after 31 years with the city, 21 with WG&L and 11 as general manager of the utility.
"I can deal with the things that the city throws at (WG&L), but I just don't see things getting any better," Edwards said Wednesday. "I don't have to keep doing this — I'm comfortable with my finances, I own properties and all three of my children are grown and successful — so I decided it was time for me to step down.
"I hate to leave our employees with this cloud hanging over them, but they're professionals and I know they will continue to do their jobs. But three people — Nathan Davis, Bobby Langstaff and (Tommie) Postell (Albany's city attorney and two city commissioners, respectively) — have decided they want to be in charge of the Water, Gas & Light Commission, and it just doesn't make sense to keep fighting them."
Langstaff, who offered best wishes to Edwards and his family in retirement, said the utility general manager misunderstands his concern about WG&L's relationship with the city.
"I'm anxious to read the (University of Georgia-based) Carl Vinson Institute's report and their suggested corrections on what they see as potential duplication of services with the city and WG&L," Langstaff, an attorney, said. "One of my primary concerns is making sure (both entities') policies are consistent. For example, I know WG&L's bid process is not in compliance with the city's. And there have been instances where their failure to adhere to city standards has exposed the city to possible lawsuits.
"I absolutely believe, with the Vinson report coming and Mr. Edwards' decision to retire, that now is a good time to make some changes in the relationship between the city and WG&L. I hope there is a national search to bring in someone with the skill set that will allow us to make tough decisions on things like staffing, especially at the management level."
Langstaff said having City Manager James Taylor more involved in WG&L operations and management makes sense.
"Since Jim Taylor has been city manager, I think the city has taken a more businesslike approach to government than it has in some time," Langstaff said. "That's the kind of approach I'd like to see at WG&L, that we'd no longer tolerate the astronomical bad debt that has accumulated there."
Taylor, too, said making changes at WG&L will be easier with new management coming in.
"I think all these things (the Vinson report, Edwards' decision to resign, the looming cleanup) will likely make change easier," the city manager said. "But I honestly don't know what that change should look like. It just seems to intuitively make sense; there are some apparent inefficiencies that could be addressed, like duplication of services.
"As for increasing my involvement (in the running of WG&L), the commission has to decide what my relationship will be and put it in writing."
Edwards, who was brought on as a city of Albany employee after he, as a U.S. Department of Labor official, testified in the landmark Johnnie Johnson Civil Rights case that reshaped Albany's hiring practices, started work in the city's human resources department in 1981. He served an interim period as city manager after 10 years with the city's HR department, and was named WG&L general manager in 1991.
He said the bitterness toward the utility that has arisen among some city officials threatens the city as it deals with the cleanup of a manufactured gas plant that is expected to cost between $5 million and $10 million.
"The city's saying they don't have any money; well, we don't have the money to pay for the cleanup," Edwards said. "It's become something of a 'tee-tee contest' for some commissioners, but that's not going to impact EPD. They expect dirt to be dug on that site starting March 1.
"I really don't know what to do at this point. Anytime something comes up about WG&L, Nathan Davis always jumps up and proclaims, 'WG&L does not own anything.' Now they're trying to say we 'own' the manufactured gas plant. Well, that's just not true. That facility was owned by the city of Albany. We agreed to share the cost with them, but now they're reneging on their own agreement."