ALBANY — Dougherty County’s and Albany’s top leaders will meet on Friday to try to work out a difference of opinion between the two entities on the chain of command of emergency management operations.
Each side has pointed to documents that seem to be in conflict as to which is in charge of overall operations of crisis response during an emergency. Despite the confusion involved, both the city and county say they have worked in unison in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, during which time they issued a joint emergency declaration and the city enacted a mask ordinance.
Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas announced the meeting during a Monday meeting of that board.
The city, which initially brought up the issue during an October Albany City Commission meeting, has pointed to a 1992 service delivery strategy agreement between the two entities. In the agreement, Albany Fire Department Chief Cedric Scott said, the city is identified as the lead agency for emergency management.
Scott also serves as the county’s emergency management director, and during response to disasters, hands his city duties over to an acting fire chief while serving in the employ of the county during that time.
“The documents say the city is responsible,” Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said during a Monday phone interview. “Apparently, in 2017 and 2018, for some reason, the city did not assume that responsibility.”
For those years, Dorough was referring to 2017 tornadoes and the wallop of Hurricane Michael in October 2018.
“I just think it ought to be returned to the intent of the service delivery strategy,” Dorough said, referring to a state-mandated process in which counties and municipalities within their boundaries were required to identify duplication of services and ways to eliminate such duplication. “Certainly the county ought to be involved. The issue is who is primarily responsible.”
Dorough said he also has some other issues on his mind. Those include a proposed tennis center to be funded by the county using $1.7 million in sales tax dollars, Dorough’s request that the county allow a vote on having an elected tax commissioner and exchanging county seats on the Dougherty County Hospital Authority with seats on the city-run Albany Dougherty Inner-City Authority.
“That’s not the purpose of the meeting, however,” he said.
The experience of storm response and recovery was of benefit during the pandemic, he said, and the two entities have worked well together to respond to the rather different circumstances of a medical crisis.
“I think the most important thing is we followed the advice of the medical community,” he said. “When we had the shelter-in-place, I was a little apprehensive at first about it.”
In response, Cohilas has said that under state law counties are identified as the lead agency in dealing with disasters and applying for relief and recovery funds.
He also provided a July 18, 2018, letter from Homer Bryson, director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security written after an action review of the response to the January 2017 tornadoes.
That letter makes several recommendations related to the emergency management director.
“To be in compliance with the emergency management construct in Georgia, a county emergency management agency director should be appointed who reports directly to a duly elected county official,” the agency head said in the letter. “GEMA/HS further recommends this EMA director be a full-time employee of Dougherty County to ensure the multifaceted responsibilities of this position can be addressed without interference from additional or conflicting job responsibilities.”
Bryson also recommended the hiring of at least one additional full-time employee to assist the emergency management director.
At a recent Dougherty County Commission meeting, Scott told commissioners that the county has a good emergency management plan in place and in the event of an emergency he will take charge to perform those duties in the city and county as needed.
“I think we’re just trying to iron out some issues,” Cohilas said during a telephone interview of the upcoming meeting with Dorough. “We have an emergency management plan that is quite clear on what the chairman is supposed to do. I don’t think this is that big of an issue.
“I think it is a matter of dotting some i’s and crossing some t’s.”
Cohilas also has brought up another city-county issue in recent months, that of the Albany Police Department’s shortage of staffing for the Albany/Dougherty Drug Unit. He did not say whether he would bring that up on Friday.
“I don’t kiss and tell,” he said.