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Business and politics no longer a good mix

Time constraints, wary employers eliminating business men and women in government

Dougherty County Commissioner Lamar Hudgins, who is owner of Southern DE and another business in Albany, says it’s getting increasingly harder to get men and women with business backgrounds to run for political office. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Dougherty County Commissioner Lamar Hudgins, who is owner of Southern DE and another business in Albany, says it’s getting increasingly harder to get men and women with business backgrounds to run for political office. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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Dougherty County Commissioner John Hayes, who is vice president of the Albany Capitol City Bank and Trust branch and the bank’s South Region manager, said capable support is necessary for business men and women who serve in government. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — Jeff Sinyard would never say as much, but those who know him well say they think a recent Dougherty County Commission meeting at which citizens openly accused the commission chairman of letting his business association with Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital influence appointments to the Hospital Authority of Albany-Dougherty County played a roll in Sinyard’s decision to leave the commission at the end of the year.

One, who asked that his name not be used, even said, “I know Jeff, and I know what those folks said hurt him. This is a man who has given everything he has to this community for a long time, and it was pretty much a slap in the face to have people accuse him of trying to profit from his service.”

While Sinyard may or may not have been swayed by the public accusation, his pending departure shines a light on an issue that many officials say is having a negative impact on national, state and local government, but particularly at the local level. It’s getting harder and harder, these officials say, to find successful business men and women willing, or in many cases, able to offer themselves for public service.

“It’s a very limiting proposition, frankly, trying to find business people who are willing to serve in government,” said sitting District 1 Dougherty Commissioner Lamar Hudgins, who owns a pair of Albany businesses including Southern DE, which provides design and technical services. “It’s getting tougher and tougher to find anyone who isn’t retired, self-employed or with very flexible hours who even has the time to serve.

“And then a lot of the businesses — especially the larger corporations — don’t want their employees involved in government. Don’t get me wrong, it’s understandable. Years ago, when I was serving on the (Albany) City Commission, I had a retail businessman whose name I won’t say who told me in the first three months he served on the commission, he lost 25 percent of his business. That’s something you have to know going in: You can make one vote out of 100 that someone disagrees with, and that person will quit doing business with you.”

Sinyard himself is one local politician who understands the restrictions businesses often place on employees who have an interest in politics. When a job change coincided with the end of his initial three-year (unfinished) term on the Dougherty Commission, Sinyard’s new employer (a local bank) told him the company did not allow its employees to serve in government.

Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard, a retired educator, offers a different take on working and public service.

“If I were still working, there is no way I could even think about serving in government,” Hubbard said. “My first commitment is to my family and then to my job. There’s no way I could devote the time I do now as mayor if I were still working. I know my schedule is self-imposed — I do this because I enjoy serving this community — but I’m (making appearances on the city’s behalf) on Saturdays and Sundays, late at night and early in the morning.

“I retired early and that’s given me the time and opportunity to do this. It’s a good thing, too, because I’m working harder now than I ever have before. I tell my husband all the time that I love serving the community, but he keeps pointing out that I’m working harder than I ever have in my life, get no money for it, and have people calling to complain at all hours. I have to remind him that I didn’t get into this for personal gain.”

Former Albany mayor and city commissioner Tommy Coleman said the demands of state and especially local government service have become so imposing, there are now “no Sam Nunns or George Busbees hanging around ready to run for office.”

“A lot of that has to do with the phenomenon of social media,” said Coleman, an attorney who represents a number of area governmental bodies. “The demands and expectations of the public are higher, and that’s increased the anger and the tension. The public is kept better aware of what’s going on, and they demand more from their government leaders.

“It’s to the point now where you pretty much have to go into politics wanting to serve. And since there are time constraints that make it tougher and tougher for working people — especially younger working people — to meet the demands, we’re starting to see a government of mostly older, retired citizens. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but it certainly takes away a segment of the population that may present newer ideas.”

Dougherty County Commissioner John Hayes, who is expected to seek a third full term on that board in this year’s county election, said officials must have a strong support team in place to be effective in office. As vice president and South Region manager of Atlanta-based Capitol City Bank and Trust, owner of a small business and father of a disabled child, Hayes certainly knows about being pulled in different directions.

“You have to plan and manage your time well, but you also have to have a lot of good, capable people around you,” the District 2 commissioner said. “I’m very fortunate to have a supportive family structure; my wife, mother-in-law and sister-in-law take care of things at home. And I have a much stronger staff at the bank than four years ago when I started here. Plus, I have a group of dedicated brothers at Mt. Zion (Baptist Church) who pray for me constantly.

“The truth of the matter is, I do what I do by the grace of God. And I have a deep desire, a passion, to serve this community. One of the things I tell people who ask me about running for office is that they need to look closely at their reasons for running. If they’re out for personal gain or publicity, they’ll end up being disappointed and they’ll do a disservice to the community.”

It would seem that businesswoman B.J. Fletcher has to invent more hours in her day to meet all her obligations. The freshman city commissioner owns her own restaurant, is director of sales for the downtown Hilton Garden Inn, is co-owner of the MillerCoors Cafeteria and has a busy catering business.

But Fletcher said the work that she does gives her a connection with the people she serves.

“I believe my work ethic helps me understand better what the people in the community are going through,” the Ward III commissioner said. “They know I’m having to work for a living just like they are. If you own your own business, you know all about what it’s like to have to pay your bills every month.

“A lot of people ask me how I do all I do and still manage to serve the community. But I have good staff and managers around me, and I have a passion to make this a better community. And I’m fired up about being a part of a commission that’s on the verge of helping turn this community around. We’re fighting back, and we’re going to come all the way back. I’m so excited about the direction we’re going in, I’d like to be able to give everything else up and just (serve the community) 24 hours a day.”

There are some who suggest the best way to get the best leaders in a community is to pay elected officials an actual salary that would allow them to work at the position full-time. Many larger communities actually do that, but few locally think that’s an option that will ever be seriously considered. Hubbard is among that group.

“It’s not going to happen,” the mayor said when asked about the possibility. “People around here don’t want you to get what we’re getting now, never mind making a full-time salary. They don’t even consider the hours we work and the gas we burn while driving our own vehicles to functions all over town.”

Under existing city and county ordinances, the mayor is paid a $25,000 annual salary, city commissioners $15,000, county commission chairman $10,800 and county commissioners $9,600.

Another issue that impacts service by local business men and women is the one that was directed at Sinyard by the citizens group. To what degree are elected officials allowed to cast votes pertaining to or do business with citizens or companies that the government deals with directly? Hudgins notes that the county follows state ethics guidelines but has no specific ethics policy of its own. The city recently drew up a standard ethics policy when it revamped its Human Resources guidelines.

“What people don’t get is that the people who own businesses have to take care of their families,” Hudgins said. “Certainly there are circumstances where a vote might directly impact a company or individual who is doing business with an elected official. In a case like that, the official should recuse himself. But I can say that is very rare. I can only remember one time in my 23 years of service that I felt that I needed to recuse myself from a vote.”

Another factor that is part of the businessman-as-government official dilemma is that a great number of very qualified and potentially dynamic candidates for office never actually run.

“I’ve been asked to run for the General Assembly by a number of people over the years, but I’ve never been able to justify the demands,” Coleman said. “While serving as mayor and on the City Commission, I was a lawyer and had the flexibility to work at night. Even then, though, I had to give up pretty much everything but my family and my job. I liked to fish, I liked to travel, I was involved in music. … I didn’t do any of that.

“I could never see a way to, essentially, take three months off, which is what I would have to do to be a part of the General Assembly. I can’t make something like that work.”

Hayes says there is untapped political talent in the community that most likely will stay untapped, given the current restrictions.

“I feel safe in saying that this community is full of talent across all sectors — ethnical and gender — and I’m sure a lot of them never offer themselves for candidacy because they can’t make it work into their schedules,” he said. “I’m fortunate enough to have an employer willing to allow me to serve. There are so many who say no, and that’s the end of the discussion.”