Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Beckett Ready To Meet Milton Issues Head-On

City Manager Billy Beckett & Public Safety Director Chris Lagerbloom

by Hatcher Hurd Appen Newspapers

Milton's new City Manager Billy Beckett comes to the job with 30 years of government experience as county manager and city manager, and perhaps he's not a moment too soon.Milton, one of Georgia's two newest cities, is sorely lacking in experience. The City Council has been challenged by an inability to get on track smoothly, and a clash of personalities has made it difficult for them to act in concert.The council has no "corporate culture" to draw upon, since everything its members do is groundbreaking. The council also divested itself of its most experienced municipal expert when it dismissed former City Manager Aaron Bovos in August 2007.

In addition to personal squabbles, a petulant Fulton County government has done little to help the city transition into one of its 13 established cities.In an effort to introduce our readers to their new city manager, the Milton Herald sat down with Beckett to talk frankly about the issues and challenges that face the fledgling community. He quickly showed he was coming into the job with his eyes wide open.

MILTON HERALD: What interested you in taking on this job? It certainly is no easy task to lead a brand new city into these deep waters.

BECKETT: When I left Safety Harbor [Fla., the last city at which he served] I was seriously considering retirement. When I saw the Milton job advertised, I saw it as a unique opportunity to apply my skills in a city that is going to be around for a long time. I hope I can make a positive impact on the formation and foundation of what is already in place here. The newness of the city and the challenges associated with setting up policies and procedures was attractive – [as was] possibly educating some of the newly elected folks in a unique setting where we have a number of outsourced programs.

MH: You're speaking, of course, about CH2M HILL OMI, which the city employs to help run its government. Is that a situation you think will work here?

BECKETT: I think it has worked in other communities. I am going in with an open mind and my view from day one is this: I don't think Milton, Johns Creek or any of the new cities – Chattahoochee Hills is the other – could have gotten up and running given the time constraints that they had.I don't think they could have gotten the staffing required to start a new city any other way. I think the model is quite appropriate for that. In my three days' experience in working with CH employees, I find them to be just as dedicated and loyal as if they worked directly for the city.Of course one of the things I have been tasked with is to evaluate the contract to see if tweaking is necessary – to see if we leave it in place as is or make any modifications. But I have been deeply impressed by the level of experience, the loyalty and dedication of the CH employees to the city. It's an interesting model.When you look at the monumental task of ... finding qualified personnel in the limited market you have here, I don't see how they could have done it any other way.

MH: What is your assessment of the No. 1 job before you now?

BECKETT: There are a number of issues we need to attack right away, and the people here know better than me what they are. But what I have been able to discover some of them pretty quickly.The first thing I need to do is to establish a sense of compatibility and cohesion among some of the council members. If we don't get council members functioning as a unit, as a team, with an understanding of teamwork, mission, responsibility, and a sense of role, then we're sunk from the beginning.The other issues, such as the sewerage extension polices that are on the table, the transportation issues, the preservation of the quality of life, the desire to retain a rural character for the community – none of those things are going to occur if we don't have an improved approach to decision-making and the implementation of the policies.The short answer is: I think my first task is to pull those individuals together who are very talented and have very diverse points of view. We are going to participate in an education process that will enable them to move forward as a unit.Disagreement is a plus for a deliberative body. You don't want unanimity on every issue, it's boring and probably no one is doing their job. Debate is not only appropriate, I think it should be encouraged. But you can debate in an agreeable manner. And once a decision is made, I think you need to get behind the decision. You can always tweak it over time.You don't need to have disharmony, discord and disruption of the staff. My first goal is meeting with the council individually and being candid and then meet in some kind of retreat format to discuss how best to proceed.

MH: The issue of proliferation of sewerage seems to be the one of the top concerns among residents. Many see its limitation as a bulwark and an absolute way to control and limit growth. On the other hand, sewerage is safer, cleaner and is the only remedy for land that does not percolate for a septic system. Is there a place for sewers in Milton?

BECKETT: It is one element of many directly tied to land use. And I think control of land-use decisions was at the top or near the top in the people's decision to create a new city. Milton voters wanted control over land-use decisions, and clearly sewerage impacts land use decisions.I think it is critical to complete the comprehensive plan and the visioning process to spell out what the city should look like.The comprehensive plan will identify growth nodes and corridors of development, which would then show where sewer might be appropriate.The lower density areas with the horse farms and estate zoning, those are more compatible to septic systems. Putting aside health considerations, you do not want to promote sewer lines in those areas marked for low density because sewer lines do promote pressure for higher density development.So if you want to preserve rural areas and large lot sizes, you need to think carefully where you extend the pipe. It's been my observation that if you improve roads, run water lines and run sewer lines, you will find increased pressure on politicians – not just from the standpoint of development, but from litigation – to maximize the value of the property.Having said that, most septic systems are not going to last beyond 25 years. Ultimately we need balance. We need to balance the preservation of certain areas with the needs of those areas where sewer is appropriate, such as Ga. 9.

MH: Another critical issue for Milton, as well as all Fulton County, is that of transportation. Gridlock is the thief of quality of life. How should Milton approach that issue?

BECKETT: We need to evaluate transportation as soon as possible. We need to focus on the importance of transportation problems, and we need serious focus on the need for arterial and collector roads. That is just another way of saying the city needs a transportation plan. Signalization, widening and improvements need to be analyzed.Funding is limited. The city has $1 million in the budget for road improvements, and that is a drop in the bucket. The temptation is to defer the issue, but I see more cities get into deeper trouble by deferring problems because they just get worse.There has to be leadership to take on the task, and that involves an educational process as well. You know going in you won't please everybody. Elected officials have to be willing to spend some political capital. Milton has no easy issues.


Anonymous said...

Beckett has already seen the problems with the council. I am glad he first acknowledged the problems and second has decided to do something about them. Good luck Beckett. We need you here to help the council function as a team for Milton. All the members must realize that no one is more important than the team as a whole. Everyone's voice needs to count equally on the council.

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