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Longtime county manager Blaine Williams on surprising resignation

Outgoing ACC County Manager Blaine Williams
Outgoing ACC County Manager Blaine Williams

Alexia Ridley: This is Athens News matters. I'm Alexia Ridley. Many local government watchers were stunned on Wednesday night when ACC Mayor Kelly Girtz announced that longtime county manager Blaine Williams would be stepping down from his post effective July 12th. Williams has been manager for eight years, serving as an assistant manager before that. Here to talk about this big decision and the next chapter in his life is the outgoing county manager, Blaine Williams. Welcome back to Athens News matters.

Blaine Williams: Thank you, Alexia. Thanks for having me this morning.

Alexia Ridley: Absolutely. First of all, what's driving your decision to step down from your post?

Blaine Williams: Well, that's one reason that I was glad to come talk to you, is that you know, in this I guess age of quick information, folks are looking for one or two blanks to fill, and you know, the truth is it's a lot more complex than that. You know, I get paid to make very complicated decisions very quickly. You know, assess alternatives, weigh opportunities and risk, you know, trying to not overanalyze outcomes. And you know, this important decision for me is no different. So, it did seem sudden, but it was, you know, it's a complicated move to execute with the necessary officials and the very public fish bowl that we live in. So, I do apologize to everybody for the suddenness. That seems to fuel a lot of theory about why it was. But there's a lot of reasons why, and not all of them are negative. I have to say this has been the best job I've ever had. It's been extremely challenging.

There's been some really high highs, but what I would say is that in all of this, I've grown as a person, so much more so than any job I've ever had before. You know, my season has come here. We have done some amazing things, and I'm getting a lot of accolades right now. But y'all, I'm just one person. And I work with some great elected and committed officials. Our staff is unbelievable. And so yeah, it is a great situation. But for me, increasingly of late, I think it's time for me to try something new, and I also say that my time with my family's growing short.

My boys are in high school, and I recognize because I've listened to others who've come before me that these are very precious times. And so, for all those reasons I know folks want to come up with probably a more sinister reason for that, but quite frankly, I'm at a stage in my career and in life where this meaning is important to me, and I want to pursue it.

Alexia Ridley: Some Commissioners, in their remarks, hinted that there were other factors involved in your decision. Commissioner Melissa Link alluded to you being targeted by some. Other Commissioners expressed a sort of vague sadness about how we got to this point. Is that something you can comment on?

Blaine Williams: Well, for anybody that that has their degree in Google, you don't have to look very far and see some, what I would consider to be very spurious comments, you know, and that just that comes with the job. That's not unique to Athens, and that's certainly been going on for a long time. So, I can assure you that, you know, I can tell you this, I am a free person, because I do not look to others for any validation or measure myself worth.

I know, and my family knows, how hard I work, and my staff appreciates the contributions that I do. I believe the elected officials do as well, so that answers your questions. Yes and no. Yes, there is that noise in the community, and there always is.

And, I know what the truth is, and I urge folks to look past the immediate, but that is not the reason I'm leaving. It's ever present. It's OK.

Alexia Ridley: Part of the job.

Blaine Williams: It's part of the job.

Alexia Ridley: It seems as though the tone of politics in Athens Clark County has gotten more malicious and strident in recent years. Did that play a role in your decision?

Blaine Williams: This is something that I really wanted to share with you and the listeners that is very important to understand: American government was structured for disagreement. OK. And there are some communities where you don't have a lot of disagreement, but I would say, if you look at potentially the elected makeup of the body, you know it, it doesn't represent the perspectives that are present in the community.

If you do have a pretty representative government, which is what it's meant to be, then you're going to have disagreement. That makes some people uncomfortable. Now, how we go about that disagreement, the level of respect that we show each other, I think that's all important.

And Alexia, you're dead on. I mean, it's obvious to anybody that's paying attention in Athens that in the last few months and certainly in the wake of Laken Riley's murder, there's been a lot of almost national attention brought to Athens. And that's kind of upped the stakes. But again, I would tell you that's pretty much present in any community.

To go into it, as a matter of fact, I think Athens has been buffered for some time with the national divisive conversation that's going on, and hear me now, I'm a neutral administrator, so it's both sides. Let's recognize that. But the answer again is no, that is not what led to that. And I would say this about what I took from some of the comments from the Commissioners, which I greatly appreciated. I was listening to the support that they shared with me.

And Commissioner Houle and others had said, look, you know, I came into this government skeptical, skeptical of the structure, skeptical of you. And Alexia, in my job, I can't help who they elect, you know, their political leanings. All I know is that they have been elected by the residents and irrespective of their politics they're the duly elected representatives of the people. And what I want to share with you is that I heard them saying, “You treated me fairly and I appreciate that.” And that was the validation, even though I don’t seek that, on our relationship and how we conduct ourselves at City Hall, and that’s a good thing.

Alexia Ridley: You've served as a manager during some of the most trying times the county has faced the COVID-19 pandemic. The protests following the murder of George Floyd, historic staff attrition, just to name a few. What was the most challenging decision you faced as a manager?

Blaine Williams: Gosh, that that is an excellent question, because they're really, it's not a linear continuum of, you know, there are many different complex questions. You know a challenging thing for any manager, and certainly for me, is telling my 11 bosses that I don't agree with them. But I'll tell you again, Athenians should be very grateful for the structure of government that is the unified government, and those folks that wrote that charter, they did a day's work. You know, actually, they did a year's work, quite frankly. And so, the way that we operate is that the elected officials, you know, the staff bring forth the recommendations. And they give us the space to give an unvarnished recommendation, even if it disagrees with them, because they know they have the ability to override that.

I will tell you that the the George Floyd murder, that was hard. We had activists--and let's recognize that Athens has a long tradition of being activist--and with that type of passion comes conflict. And certainly folks were, you know, very upset and understandably so. But it kind of invited a showdown with our police. And I can tell you that was a stressful moment in that moment, but it wasn't as if I struggled with what to do. It's just, you know, it was a high stakes thing and really it was more about the safety of people and the threatened destruction of property and all that. That's just not an everyday occurrence here.

I would not say that's the most complex, but that's a memorable one.

Alexia Ridley: What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Blaine Williams: Well, if you'd asked me this a year ago, I would have pointed to elected officials buying the quarry, because without water, what do we have? And so, we are looking ahead to climate resilience, and I could name any number of projects that we've all collaborated on. And those are concrete examples of just taking resources, prioritizing a process that involves others and getting things done. Those are certainly things to be proud of. But you know, I have grown, and I continue to grow. And right now, I understand that the most important impact or achievement that I could be proud of, it's about people, and I've been given a privilege to offer folks the opportunity to serve the government.

Alexia Ridley: We've talked about some of the highlights. Do you have any regrets about your term as manager?

Blaine Williams: I really don't. I mean, there are things that obviously I could have done better, I would have done differently looking back on it. I had no idea the things that we were going to encounter together. I'm only grateful for all of this, and I leave this with, gosh, so much pride and so much hope for the future in the structure of government and our elected officials and our staff. You know, everybody can wring their hands over what's going on here. But I think you don't have to travel very far to understand how special this place is.

Alexia Ridley: What should the county be looking for in our next manager? What qualities make a manager successful?

Blaine Williams: Well, and I don't want to preempt anybody else. I think one of the biggest things is objectivity. You know, I see my peers trying to navigate this complex environment with multiple and competing interests, and a short term expedient thing to do is concede to those.

But you know, there's a pendulum that swings with regards to political thought, and Athens is not buffered from that. And I would say that that's a short term and expedient win, but it gets you in the long term. So above all, I think objectivity, I think an appreciation for the form of government and appreciation for our staff would be excellent. I think the new person would need to come in certainly not trying to build political capital. That is the realm of the elected officials. But being known in the community, being accessible, being able to share the story about the good stuff that's going on and to receive the criticism. I think those are important characteristics.

Alexia Ridley: Finally, what's next for you? Will you be staying in Athens?

Blaine Williams: I hope so. There's nowhere else I'd rather live. I've worked in the private sector before, and so I'm looking for something closer to home. I'd love to just remain a part of this community, my children and my family are deeply embedded in it. I hope to see you around and I hope to find something close to home.

Alexia Ridley: Thank you so much for taking the time to come back to the show for the last time as county manager. I appreciate it.

Blaine Williams: Thank you. Thank you, Alexia.

Alexia Ridley: Blaine Williams is the outgoing county manager of Athens, Clark County. He will serve until July 12th.

Alexia Ridley joined WUGA as Television and Radio News Anchor and Reporter in 2013. When WUGA TV concluded operations, she became the primary Reporter for WUGA Radio. Alexia came to Athens from Macon where she served as the News Director and show host for WGXA TV. She's a career journalist and Savannah native hailing from the University of Michigan. However, Alexia considers herself an honorary UGA DAWG!
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