Albany officials ponder city's future

The GM of the Albany utility is gone, and there are questions as to how long the Albany city manager will stay

ALBANY — City officials spent the day before the start of the Independence Day holiday pondering the possibility of a future without two of their highest ranking employees: City Manager James Taylor and interim Water, Gas & Light Commission General Manager Tom Berry.

And while Berry is definitely gone, having returned Wednesday to Thomasville after announcing his resignation at WG&L’s board meeting a week ago, Taylor’s plans have thus far remained in a state of limbo. City officials said late Wednesday they’d gotten no indication of the city manager’s pending departure. Taylor is, according to officials, taking requested leave through Tuesday.

Still, few doubted that the retired Marine, who has made it clear in recent weeks that he’s ready to step down from his position soon, would tender his resignation in the near future.

“Right now, there’s nothing saying Col. Taylor has formally resigned,” Ward V Commissioner Bob Langstaff said Wednesday. “As commissioners, we have an obligation to be prepared (for his pending departure), but we don’t want to jump out there and do things prematurely when he plans to stay longer.”

Still, as the uncertainty of Taylor’s future in the city lingered, commissioners said they’re ready to move forward.

“If Mr. Taylor does plan to retire, I hope he will give us a 30-day notice so we can celebrate his tenure,” Ward IV Commissioner Roger Marietta said. “Regardless, I hope the citizens of Albany know that we plan to move forward with optimism.”

Berry, who called out four city commissioners — including Marietta, Ward I’s Jon Howard, Ward II’s Bobby Coleman and Ward VI’s Tommie Postell — during his resignation announcement, was still in the picture Wednesday as some commissioners said his knowledge of utilities could be beneficial to WG&L going forward. Taylor named city Central Services Director Stephen Collier as interim director of the utility authority on Tuesday.

Two of the commissioners Berry called out by name, Coleman and Marietta, said Thursday they could still work with Berry.

“I don’t hold what he said against him,” Coleman said. “I believe when a man has a problem, he should call it out. I respect Tom Berry and understand he was frustrated when he made the comments he made. At no point have I disagreed with the things he’s tried to do. I’ve just disagreed with the way he and Mr. Taylor tried to do them.

“I don’t want to say I told you so, but I think what’s happened the last couple of days shows that I was right to suggest that we go about making these changes in the city slowly. My only concern through all of this has been the citizens of this community. I could work with Tom Berry tomorrow if it would help the community.”

Marietta said he’s appreciative of the work Berry did for the city.

“Everyone makes mistakes; sometimes you just have to step back a notch,” the Ward IV commissioner said. “Tom Berry was very passionate about what he did for this city, and I am thankful that he stayed on here nine months when he originally planned to stay only three.

“I certainly am not going to be the one living in a glass house who throws any rocks at Tom Berry.”

Howard, though, was not in such a forgiving mood Wednesday.

“Look, I’ve got some tough skin, but for somebody to single out individual commissioners and use the word ‘dysfunctional’ to describe them … I know it would be difficult for me to work with somebody like that,” the Ward I commissioner said. “That’s a really low blow.”

Ward III Commissioner B.J. Fletcher has championed Berry’s cause and said he should remain a viable candidate for both the WG&L GM job he vacated and the city manager office, should it come open.

“My first choice at this time remains Tom Berry,” she said Wednesday. “He has a proven success record.”

While the utilities position remained a topic of interest among city officials, they spoke tentatively about the possibility of naming a replacement for Taylor. Still, two obvious candidates emerged during those conversations.

Assistant City Manager Wes Smith, who has served in that position for the past eight years and has been involved with the city for 29 years — 18 as an employee and 11 with the Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority, which previously was not directly connected with the city — would move into the manager’s position in the event of illness or death. But officials were not clear Wednesday if he would assume the manager’s post in the event of retirement.

Smith has previously said he would not apply for the position when it officially came open, due to family concerns, but he said Wednesday he would consider an interim appointment.

“I would relish the opportunity to serve the community as interim city manager if asked,” Smith said. “I would not apply for the position on a permanent basis at this time, but I am prepared to do what the commission decides, if they indeed ask me (to serve as interim manager). I’m not at this time comfortable that I could provide the services I would want to give and that the citizens deserve in a permanent position. But I would be completely happy to serve as interim.”

Public Works Director Phil Roberson, lauded by most as one of the city’s most valuable personnel assets, will mark his 40th year with the city in September. Roberson had been approached by a number of city officials about applying for the city manager’s position when Taylor made it clear he would not be staying on much longer, but Roberson too said he’s not interested in taking on the job permanently. Contacted Wednesday, though, about the possibility of serving on an interim basis, the Public Works director said he would be open to the idea.

“I’ve made it clear that this is not a position I’d be interested in on a permanent basis, but I will say that I would do anything that is in the best interest of this city,” Roberson said Wednesday. “Of course, I truly believe that any department manager would do the same thing if asked.”

Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany Commander Col. Don Davis has been mentioned by some as a possible candidate for the position, should it become available, but an MCLB-Albany spokesperson said Wednesday, “The colonel’s current commitment is to the Marine Corps.”

Messages left for Mayor Dorothy Hubbard and Postell seeking comment were not immediately returned.

While most of city officials’ talk Wednesday involved the city manager and WG&L positions, Marietta said he still has questions about a $20,000 bonus Taylor awarded to Veronica Wright in the city’s risk management department. Taylor told The Albany Herald Tuesday he had approved the bonus because Wright had saved the city and WG&L $300,000.

“It was a business decision,” Taylor said. “She earned the bonus. If (city commissioners) have a problem with the decision, I’ll pay the money back.”

Marietta said he’d like a clarification on city policy.

“Until yesterday, I’d never heard the word ‘bonus’ in association with the city government,” the Ward IV commissioner said. “I’d like to know if this is new policy. I don’t know the details, and while I think it’s important to save taxpayers’ money, several have expressed concern that that is (city) employees’ jobs.”