CARLTON FLETCHER: What's next for Albany's utility?

OPINION: Departure of interim GM Tom Berry will have impact throughout city government

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

Ancient bonds are breaking, Moving on and changing sides.

— Pink Floyd

The volatile and fragile nature that typifies any multitiered organization is such that today’s calm may be the impetus for tomorrow’s storm.

Such was the case last Thursday when Albany’s well-regarded interim Water, Gas & Light Commission General Manager Tom Berry, angered by a City Commission whose comments indicated a complete lack of knowledge about utilities — the very thing that the Albany officials have empowered themselves to manage — decided he’d had enough of Albany, Georgia. Never one to concern himself with politics and political correctness — he was, after all, an interim employee working on a month-to-month, as-needed basis — Berry called commissioners out by name as he announced his pending departure.

Ward II Commissioner Bobby Coleman, perhaps oversimplifying the response of some commissioners, noted, “There was a Water, Gas & Light Commission before Tom Berry came here, and there will be one when he leaves.”

Coleman’s point is well-taken. If one person is solely responsible for the well-being of a business or organization that includes more than a handful of employees, that organization is in trouble.

But the question that has rattled around the community — from the fifth floor offices of governmental power to the boardrooms of local businesses to the streets on which citizens travel in the names of employment and commerce — is, simply, What now? Because even the most casual observer knows that the resignation of Berry could very well be a lone domino that, now that it’s toppled, could bring the downfall of a number of tenuously standing tiles.

The most obvious question: What happens with WG&L?

That question will hang in the air while leaders of the utility and city officials try to suss it out, but a couple of things took place the moment Berry walked out the door. City Manager James Taylor, who has made no secret that his days in Albany are numbered, too, and who had developed a strong working relationship with Berry, now resumes his role as acting general manager of the utility.

There has been talk leaking down from the fifth floor that Stephen Collier, the city’s Central Services director who has managed that position well, could step in as interim GM at WG&L while the city continues its search for a permanent assistant manager/utilities director. There has also been talk that Assistant WG&L GM Lee Hauesler, one of the senior-most executives at the utility, had expressed interest in the GM position, but did not get the support needed to move into the top spot.

Hauesler is reportedly looking to make his exit soon. When and if he leaves, he will join WG&L board member Bob Hutchinson, who announced his resignation from that board on the day that Berry stepped down.

Many, including Ward IV City Commissioner Roger Marietta, have lamented the fact that, with WG&L now an official division of the city, an ill-equipped group of city leaders is ultimately responsible for such utility concerns as rate increases, collection of unpaid bills, personnel, hiring and training qualified linemen and such issues that generally go to much more well-informed managers.

(Calling the City Commission “ill-equipped,” by the way, is not a knock on them or their abilities. Certainly, there are some very intelligent and capable commissioners among the seven, but utility training is a whole different beast than the typical issues handled by the board.)

One local businessman, concerned that Berry’s departure could be the snowball that starts an avalanche, told me Monday, “Can you imagine this City Commission making decisions on utility rates and the other things that are done by WG&L? This is what they wanted, now they have to own it. It’s like they tell you in retail: ‘You broke it, you pay for it.’ These people who decided to change an organization that has been in place for 100 years can no longer pass the buck when things go wrong at WG&L.

“If utility bills continue to rise and people who are struggling find it harder and harder to pay their bills, these commissioners can’t blame WG&L anymore. All the politicking in the world won’t help them when people realize that (the commissioners) are the ones who are going into their pocketbooks.”

Albany has been so close — on the verge so many times in recent years — of overcoming what has turned into a nightmare self-image and a severely depressed economy. There have been fits and starts. Some have failed disastrously. But the city is on the brink of another mini-boom right now, teetering toward development and business opportunities that could erase years of frustration and help eliminate some of the community’s greatest ills: unemployment, lack of education, crime, poverty.

But, as we said, the well-being of a multitiered organization is a volatile and fragile thing. Two or three major decisions are what now stand between a new and prosperous Albany and an Albany that could very well drown in its own flopsweat.

Email Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.