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Albany government’s interim directors face unique challenges, opportunities

City leaders must make decisions soon at key positions

Albany City Manager James Taylor (File photo)

Albany City Manager James Taylor (File photo)

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JoEllen Brophy serves as interim director of the city of Albany’s Finance department. (File photo)

ALBANY — It’s a fact of life in the business of government: You’re going to lose employees along the way, sometimes at the highest levels of your management team.

That’s where interims become vital.

The city of Albany currently has a relatively significant number of interim directors running the day-to-day operations of various key departments, leaving City Manager James Taylor to rely on temporary leadership while he decides whether to look for replacements outside the organization or promote from within.

Among the interim directors currently serving the city: JoEllen Brophy in the Finance Department, Tom Berry at the Water, Gas & Light Commission, Shelena Hawkins with the Department of Community and Economic Development, and Darrell Smith with Albany Parks and Recreation.

And while the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission is a joint agency serving the city, Dougherty County and the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, Justin Strickland is set to become interim director of that organization on Monday.

“It’s all part of the process,” Taylor said of having a number of interim directors at key positions. “Unfortunately, most people in your organization don’t know they’re leaving until they leave. In some ways, the city is fortunate because (former city manager) Al (Lott) added a lot of deputies to the payroll when he was here. Now that’s a double-edged sword because you have to pay those folks, but it helps with continuity if a deputy is in place who can step in and handle management responsibilities.”

Brophy, Hawkins, Smith and Strickland are all promote-from-within interims who moved into their various positions with the departure of their former bosses. Berry, who is uniquely qualified to manage the beast that is the Water, Gas & Light Commission, signed on as a hired gun, brought in to keep the utility running while officials look for a replacement for long-time General Manager Lemuel Edwards.

“In my case, it’s fairly easy,” Berry said. “I only work with people I want to work for. And I make it clear from the beginning of my tenure: I have no interest in keeping the job permanently. I think that makes for a unique situation. People who hire on as interims and want to keep the job are not as free to make changes as someone in my situation.”

Brophy, meanwhile, offers a different perspective for those like her who are already in the organization and have designs on taking the “interim” off their title.

“I think (serving as an interim director) is a good test,” Brophy said. “It’s a good opportunity for both sides. It’s an opportunity for you to move into the position and see what the day-to-day experience is all about, and it’s an opportunity for your employer to see what you can do in the position.

“The way I approach the job is with a clear understanding that I am an interim director only, serving until such time that a permanent director is named. But during that time, I feel that you have to operate as if you were the permanent director. You have to do the job.”

Taylor and the Albany City Commission’s tallest order may be finding a permanent replacement for Berry at WG&L. The long-time utilities management expert has made it clear that he’d like to end his tenure in Albany around March. “I think if you stay long enough that you start developing relationships, you’ve stayed too long,” Berry said. The city has not actively begun to search for his replacement.

“WG&L is a huge, complicated, convoluted organization,” Taylor said. “When (the position came open) all three of the organization’s assistant general managers (Keith Goodin, Lorie Farkas and Lee Hauesler) indicated they wanted to be considered for the position. I felt that naming one of them interim would give that person an advantage over the others. Plus, we ended up with an ideal situation when Tom (Berry) came on board. He knows the business, and he’s had no trouble fitting in here.”

Taylor said he needs clearer direction from the City Commission before he begins to search in earnest for Berry’s replacement.

“The commission hasn’t really defined where we are going with WG&L,” the city manager said. “Until things are established in absolute terms, it wouldn’t be fair to bring someone in here. We will begin that discussion soon, and I hope to get the process rolling in the next two-three weeks.”

Interviews for the Finance job started Friday, and Taylor said he expects to start looking at the Parks and Rec position closely in the next week or two. The Community and Economic Development post is another situation entirely.

“That position concerns me because it’s a hybrid position,” the city manager said. “There are very specific local and federal regulations that must be followed, so I don’t think you can really bring someone in here and train them for the position. They have to come in the door knowing it.

“Shelena (Hawkins) certainly has the ability to do the job, but she’s one of those employees who doesn’t like to be out front on some of the things that the department does. She’ll have to get it in her head that that’s part of the job. She’s already got so much on her plate, and she’s handling it well. Whoever moves into that position will, hopefully, have a smaller organization than she’s running now. We’re working to divest ourselves of some of the things — especially the management component — that she and her staff are dealing with now.”

As he runs down the requirements of the various city positions now being managed by interim directors, Taylor points out another pertinent fact: He recently signed on for another hitch as head man of the city’s government, but he’ll be joining the ranks of the retired soon.

“One advantage (city leaders) will have is that I have worked with both assistants (Wes Smith and Lonnie Ballard) to keep them abreast of everything that’s going on, not just with their specific duties,” Taylor said. “When I leave, it’s going to create a unique challenge. If (the commission) promotes one of them to serve as interim manager, it will be perceived as giving one an advantage over the other. Trying to rotate the two — one a while, then the other — would be a complete mess.

“You have to be careful in situations like that. You can disrupt the cohesiveness of your team, and then everyone pays the price.”

Heavy, it’s been said, is the head of he who wears the crown … even if it is on an interim basis.