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Athens News Matters for June 8, 2024

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: Welcome back to Athens News matters from WGA News. I'm Alexia Ridley. Georgians may be familiar with the name Plant Vogtle, and not for positive reasons. Since beginning construction in 2009, the nuclear production site has been plagued by construction issues, cost overruns and public opposition. A new report details the plant’s history and the impact it may have on consumers.

Patty Durand is the founder of the Energy Consulting Group Cool Planet Solutions. She's also one of the co-authors of the study, and she sat down with me to discuss its findings. Here's that conversation.

Thank you so much for joining us this afternoon.

Patty Durand: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Alexia Ridley: First, where can our listeners read this report for themselves?

Patty Durand: There are links on several nonprofit websites. All of the partners, so maybe the easiest link would be to go to Georgia WAND, which stands for Women's Action for New Direction. If they get to their website, they can click on “Issues” and then see the nuclear report listed right there.

Alexia Ridley: And let's now turn to Plant Vogtle, which has four nuclear reactors, including the two just completed. Plant Vogtle will cost almost $37 billion, according to your study. That's the most expensive energy plant in the world. Why did it cost so much?

Patty Durand: That's a good question. We go into those answers quite a bit, extensively, in the report. Among the reasons are that there was a lot of incompetence and inappropriate management decisions on the part of Southern Company and Southern Nuclear and Georgia Power. In fact, cost overruns were so extreme that the main contractor, Westinghouse, went bankrupt in 2017. Some of the reasons included that the contractor said that the modules for the plant would be built off site and shipped to the site, which would save money, and none of those things were true. There were no efficiencies, the construction that took place off site for the modules actually was shoddy, and when the modules made it on site they had to be redone, which cost a lot of money. And if you were to read the Public Service Commission filings made by independent construction monitors, these are nuclear engineers and nuclear experts, you would be shocked at what they documented in terms of poor executive management, poor construction, site management, and we did read those filings and excerpts of those filings are in the report, and it is hair raising and very disappointing.

Alexia Ridley: Since the pandemic and with the rise of inflation, construction costs for everything have soared. What role did that play in the plant’s cost overruns.

Patty Durand: Minor, very minor, in fact, COVID costs were documented at $200 million, which sounds like a lot unless you put it in context of a $36 billion plant. And then you see it's less than 1% of the cost. Inflation reared its head only recently. This plant has been under construction since 2009. And the bankruptcy from Vogtle, I'm sorry, from Westinghouse happened in 2017.

Alexia Ridley: Why do you think the Georgia Public Service Commission decided in 2017 to allow Plant Vogtle's construction to go forward, even though the Commission staff warned against it?

Patty Durand: Not only did the Commission staff warn against it, but the experts that the Commission brought in recommended canceling the plan, or if it continued to at least put protections in place for cost overruns so customers don't have to pay them. But the Commission declined to put the protections in place and voted to continue, as you just said, and some of the reasons are outlined in the report. There are a lot of problems with the Georgia Public Service Commission not regulating in the public interest.

Alexia Ridley: The study explores whether Plant Vogtle will contribute to energy poverty in Georgia. Can you tell us what energy poverty is and how Plant Vogtle will affect energy prices for Georgians?

Patty Durand: Absolutely. Energy poverty is a term used to mean that a person would struggle to pay their utility bill if it's higher than a certain percentage of their income. And so there are different metrics, the federal government uses 6%, if someone is paying more than 6% of their income to their utility bills, then that is going to be a struggle for them. And once it approaches 10%, then people start facing things like disconnections. And we're not talking about sitting around in the dark when someone loses their power. We're talking about very serious consequences. For instance, someone can lose their children, DFACS will not allow parents to have children in a home with no power. If they're renters, they can be evicted.

And even worse, they can die in Georgia's brutal summer heat if they don't have a fan or access to oxygen, and people have died. So those are some of the serious consequences of energy poverty. And that is basically going to be expanded because Georgia Power bills are going up 10% across the board. That is an enormous increase in someone's bill for just a little bit of energy that Vogtle provides.

Alexia Ridley: Speaking at the plant last week, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called for the US to triple its nuclear capacity. Is that a wise idea?

Patty Durand: I mean, that is just offensive. It's offensive to me on a number of ways. One is, I don't believe that Jennifer Granholm or anybody knows exactly what Plant Vogtle cost-- these two new reactors are hidden from information in terms of cost, which is why we calculated it in our report and had to cite our own information using filings from the PSC. Because the Georgia Public Service Commission is not telling people how much this plant costs that they approved and supposedly provided oversight. And that's also why when you read the Atlanta Journal or an Associated Press article or any news article they will say things like “Exceeded 32 billion, exceeded 35 billion,” because they can't list the price, because it's not provided to them. There are no citations. So Granholm is up there calling for tripling reactors with no knowledge of what they cost, and it's also offensive because these reactors are now the most expensive power plant ever built on Earth. How can she sleep at night knowing that she's calling for such an expensive source of energy that will harm ratepayers across the board when there's so many more affordable options available now?

Alexia Ridley: Thank you.

Patty Durand: Thank you for having me. And covering the report. I really appreciate it.

Alexia Ridley: Patty Durand is the founder of the Energy Consulting Group Cool Planet Solutions and is a co-author of a recent study which criticizes Plant Vogel,

Representatives for Georgia Power, responded to the study in an e-mail:

Georgia’s economy is growing - and growing quickly. The completion of the new Vogtle units will help us meet this demand and offers a new source of clean, reliable energy, available 24/7, for customers. We are proud of the thousands of American workers who were onsite day after day working to bring this project online to serve a growing Georgia. Our focus over the years has remained on safety and quality construction, and fulfilling our responsibility to our customers to provide clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy. With the completion of the units, and their exemplary performance so far, we have done just that.

Regarding Cost/Rate Impact: At Georgia Power, we understand the impact the cost to build these new units has on customers and, from the beginning, we have worked to minimize costs for customers from this critical new energy asset through proactive steps such as the fixed price contract, collecting financing costs during construction and pursuing DOE loan guarantees.

o The Georgia PSC last year issued its order on our cost recovery for the project which helps lessen the impact for customers and honors the spirit of the decision we all made to move forward in 2017. Pursuant to the PSC’s decision, Georgia Power is not recovering approximately $2.6 billion in total projected costs.

o The month following Unit 4 achieving commercial operation, average retail rates were adjusted by approximately 5%. With the Nuclear Construction Cost Recovery (NCCR) tariff removed from bills, a typical resident customer using 1,000 kWh per month saw an estimated monthly increase of $8.95 per month. This follows the previous rate impact in 2023 following Unit 3 COD of $5.42 (3.2%).

o It’s also important to note that, although nuclear has a high cost to build, it offers extremely stable and predictable fuel and operating costs over the life of the units (expected to be 60 to 80 years), helping keep rates low for our customers in the long term.

Regarding the process:

The Stipulation was negotiated and signed by a diverse group of stakeholders representing the broad-based interests of our customer base – from organizations representing manufacturing industrial customers to retail residential customers, congregations and communities of faith, and the energy-using and consuming public as a whole.

Through the robust and open VCM process (There were 29 open and transparent semi-annual VCM proceedings) all issues raised by parties to the proceeding – including intervenors – were thoroughly documented and considered by the PSC.

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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