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Podcast: Policy and Management Response to COVID-19 with Blaine Williams, Athens-Clarke County, GA

Posted on April 10, 2020


Blaine Williams

Blaine Williams
Manager
Athens-Clarke County, Georgia
LinkedIn | Bio


From economic resiliency to teleworking. Blaine Williams, the Manager of Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, joined the podcast to talk about how his organization has been responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. He discussed preparation, issuing a stay at home order, and coordinating with the State of Georgia. He also talked about working with the Mayor and Commission in the response and enforcing social distancing guidelines through education.

Host: Ben Kittelson

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Episode Transcript

Ben Kittelson

This is GovLove, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben Kittelson, consultant at the Novak Consulting Group and GovLove co-host. For today’s episode, we’re continuing our coverage of how local governments are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. And today we’re going to talk about the policy and management response in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia. Before we get into the episode, I want to remind folks that in the GovLove audience that we’ve postponed the ELGL annual conference to October 14 – 16th 2020 in Portland, Oregon. As a reminder, you can support GovLove by joining ELGL and ELGL is a professional association engaging the brightest minds in local government. We’re also looking for your feedback. You can visit govlovesurvey.com to share a little about what you think about the podcast. Now let me introduce today’s  guest. Blaine Williams is the Manager of the unified government of Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, a position he’s been in since 2016. Prior to taking on that role, he was Assistant Manager in Athens-Clarke County for about three years and also worked for Floyd County, Georgia, as a county manager and assistant manager for over five years. He’s also had a position for the City of Rome, Georgia and the Middle Georgia Regional Commission. So, Blaine, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome to GovLove.

Blaine Williams

Thank you, Ben. Thanks for having me.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. And I appreciate you. I know, I know. We’ll talk a lot about it. But I know you guys have a bunch going on. And the longer response to this is, takes up a ton of your time. So I really appreciate you carving out a little time for GovLove. We have a tradition that we ask some lightning round questions to get to know our guests a little better. So my first one for you, what was the first concert that you went to?

Blaine Williams

Well, you know, this might make me seem older than I am, but I actually got to see James Brown in Augusta where I grew up, at one of his last concerts, or one of his final concerts there. So that was back in high school.

Ben Kittelson

That’s wow, that’s awesome. That’s a great first concert.

Blaine Williams

[Laughter] It was great.

Ben Kittelson

What book are you currently reading?

Blaine Williams

And this really is born out of this emergency. And I know it’s gonna seem weird, but I’m reading the roadside guide to Georgia’s geology.

Ben Kittelson

Okay.

Blaine Williams

And I can I can explain that.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Please do it. [Laughter]

Blaine Williams

So it’s interesting, just prior to the event, we had an early spring break and my family and I we did travel to Florida and we’re past our 14 days now. But we did some fossil hunting and I have young boys and this had a ton of fun and they have caught that bug. And so now that we have more time, we were learning more about geology and trying to see if there are places in Georgia that we can go fossil hunt. So it’s a little nerdy but it’s tied to this extra time that I have with my family now and taking advantage of that.

Ben Kittelson

That’s a fun, like new hobby.

Blaine Williams

[Laughter] Well, it is it is. And, you know, and I’m sure that folks across the country, if they have the shelter in place orders, one of the it’s interesting the social impacts that’s having. You know, people are talking to their neighbors, albeit in distance and there’s not the everyday distractions there are. So the conversations are a little bit deeper with family members. And so we’re kind of building on that in our household.

Ben Kittelson

Very cool. Well and kind of on that note, with having a little more time at home and, you know, less less going out, is there any TV that you’re binging right now or are watching as a family?

Blaine Williams

So I’m gonna nerd with you again. Yeah, we’re watching a lot of YouTube videos of people finding fossilized sharks. Yeah, I mean, you know, my boys and I were up till 11 o’clock last night watching people do you know ridiculous finds seemingly easy, and I keep explaining to them that it doesn’t quite work that way. But we are watching a lot of that good stuff right now.

Ben Kittelson

That’s awesome. Yeah, the magic of video editing probably is making that look real easy.

Blaine Williams

That’s right. The hours of searching, that’s not caught on tape.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. [Laughter] All right. And my last lightning round question for you. Where do you go for inspiration?

Blaine Williams

Well, and again, this is if you’d asked me a month ago, it’d be a different answer. But we are lucky enough to live next door to some woods that a man gifted to the city years ago, an explorer, and there is a brook down there that I love to walk down to after being cooped up in City Hall all day with numerous WebEx calls that we have and and just getting being surrounded by nature is such a contrast from what the day to day has been since this started and that that has been very inspiring for me.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome, awesome. Well, um, I definitely wanna talk about kind of the path that you guys have kind of gone through with, you know, preparing and then managing this pandemic. But kind of before we go back in time, I know, either was it yesterday the governor of Georgia announced a new executive order. So can you talk a little bit how you guys are, what that was and what you guys are doing to respond to that?

Blaine Williams

Well, I will say that our elected officials here were one of the first in the state to enact a shelter in place, which seems forever ago, was only a couple weeks ago. And, and it was, you know, it was derided by some across the state. But I think the wisdom of time has happened and and it’s now that was a very prudent move at the time is, I think it takes some courage to do that. And, and I’m sure many folks across the country that are listening or dealing with the same thing. You know our hospitals are not, you know, just for our populace within our county boundaries, they are regional catchment area, and we have, it’s all across the board. We’re a regional center and we’re necessarily more dense and urban. And we got the more rural areas that are slower to adopt more stringent practices. So we have the same beds that we share but with differing approaches to this pandemic, and I think the governor found it necessary to, to produce some uniformity across the state so what what, from what just from what we’re learning now, it is more restrictive for those places that did not have anything in place. And it is less restrictive for those of us that had went ahead and put some some early on parameters on that.

Ben Kittelson

To go back in time, you know, you mentioned you went on an early spring break trip and I think I saw your you’re calling Josh Edwards, a little before all of this kind of, you know, went crazy. When you guys were, you know, at the beginning of March, kind of monitoring COVID-19 and and what were you guys doing to prepare? Like, what was kind of the you see this on the horizon, and you know, there’s some, you know, obviously outbreak going on and you know, on the west coast and in New York but not quite down in the south yet. So what were you guys doing to prepare kind of at that that stage of the outbreak?

Blaine Williams

Well, and I want to share what we were doing to prepare, but I do I mean, it does seem forever ago and what what seemed impossible as pies very is reality now. And none of us adventure to say no, like listening to this podcast was alive when the last pandemic happened. And so it, you know, all of our emergencies here in Georgia that I’ve been since I’ve been a local government manager have been weather related. So it’s usually brief. It’s violent. It’s a quick intervention, and then we’re good and nothing like this. And then, you know, the media attention around it too. Early on, we had started to really freak some people out. And and I remember remember two weeks ago, three weeks ago where people said, you know, well, you know, the flu is killed so many other people, there’s no reason to be, you know, a really, you know, and I think that that was a good intent to try to calm people down because of the media hype. But as we know, I mean, it’s, it’s been a serious thing, and it will continue to be, it’s changed all of our lives. So but what we did back in the early days was, we made sure that our continuity of operation plans, we call them COOP plans here, that that we, we had that in place. We started that, you know, the week before the spring break, so this would have been first week of March, as this was unfolding, you know, and we’ll talk more about our emergency management coordinator here shortly. So making sure that everybody had continuity plans. And then as they’re a little more definition came to what the response could look like, it we’ve been, we’ve put ourselves in a posture of this is going to be a long, this is going to take a while to play out. And we need to make sure that we have available workforce three months from now, four months from now to provide those vital services that our citizens expect. And so then it became an exercise and I need you to break your operations into teams. And these two teams cannot or three teams, eight teams, whatever it is, depending on the size of the operation, I can’t have them interacting with one another. You know, if one team is compromised on exposure, then they’re out and then we bring in another team that is fresh and you know, obviously with all the cleaning protocols, so we dusted off the COOP plans to answer your question first and then we further refined them for hunkering down for a long response.

Ben Kittelson

Well, and kind of to your point, the that teams aspect like, that’s obviously not how you’re responding to other emergencies that the COOP plans are set up for. So was that guidance that you you got from the federal government or from or is that something that the emergency management coordinator, you know, they’ve they’ve dust off the, the pandemic response book, and that was like, kind of a something that was on the checklist to prepare, or where did that kind of guidance to, to send those teams and that kind of management approach come from?

Blaine Williams

You know, that’s a great question Ben. And I will say that we, we’ve really been fortunate with the type of workforce that we have here that we’ve had, we’ve embraced innovation. And I would say that earlier in my career, I would have done just that. I would have looked to best practices from neighbors and the federal and state governments. Actually, that inspiration came from the private sector. Interestingly enough, our Mayor, his wife is pretty high up in a, you know, fast food chain that’s got a national presence and it’s headquarters are here. And he, that’s the first time I heard about this idea of teams and rotations. Interestingly enough, that that inspiration took hold and when I communicated with our department directors, our public safety folks, particularly police and fire and our water treatment folks were thinking the same thing. And then further validated, not that we were looking for validation, but we held through the chamber, a conference call with our local manufacturers, and sure enough, they had done the exact same thing. And so it’s interesting how, I mean, it was it was uncanny as if we all had the same playbook and looked at it, but it was suited and tailored towards the threat that we were facing.

Ben Kittelson

Interesting. One, and I know I talked to Josh a little bit of a before about kind of what you guys have been doing, you know, before this interview and, and he mentioned that you guys have an emergency management coordinator and and so what’s kind of the role of that position and how they’ve been like sort of leading the preparation and response for you guys?

Blaine Williams

You know that the Emergency Management Coordinator is such a thankless position. And I will tell you that based on the way that I learned and came up through the ranks, that the culture in the GA communities that I have been a part of and managed, is that in the time of emergency, the emergency management coordinator is the person in charge. So when we go to the EOC, the manager doesn’t need to be up there trying to, you know, direct the orchestra. This is a time when you know, that singular type of, you know, paramilitary hierarchy comes into play because decision making needs to be swift. The police chief, the fire chiefs, the folks used to kind of running their shows, understand that they subject themselves. And you contrast that with their role when it’s not an emergency. And so they’re out there trying to get people to plan, which is the hardest thing to do. Nobody wants to do that and plan for things that you know, they can’t even put their, their selves in that position. And so they go from being relatively, you know, obscure to suddenly being the person in charge. And in this case, you know, I have daily multiple times daily contact with our emergency management coordinator, Captain Paxton and he leads our calls of our our team and our response. So it’s been a welcome role and he has good ties with our public health folks and our Mercy Corps and our first responders.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, kind of, you mentioned this at the top but when the mayor and commission you know, issued the local emergency and the stay-at-home, you guys and you had like the, you know, the COOP plans in place, but what did that roll out look like for the organization? Like, how did that look for different, different parts of the, you know, city and county of Athens-Clarke?

Blaine Williams

Well, and again, it was a timing issue in that many of our employees, though. So the the federal declaration, I think it happened on the third March 13 or so. March 13 was a Friday, if anybody can remember that. And that was the last day of our spring break. So many of our employees had been out and gone and traveled and put themselves probably in a precarious position for exposure purposes. So we had had a weird law, but there were other people that were still working. And so I don’t know if everybody remembers, it was the Wednesday night, it was the the 11th when everything changed. On the 11th I was talking with our state board members about whether or not to have our state annual conference for the Georgia City County Manager Association the following week, and Wednesday, early evening, we were all of the opinion, you know, we need to lead by example, we need to not react to all the hype, we need to, you know, we need to kind of soldier on and then within a few hours that that night, everything changed. And the next day we canceled the conference. So that was Thursday morning. And then on Friday, you know, the previous week, we’d had our department directors working on their COOP plans for long term response. And so Sunday evening, which would have been the 15th, I closed all workstations and what that means here is that anybody that is a non emergency person needs to stay at home. And again, that policy, which has been with this government for some time, was really for weather related emergencies. It’s too dangerous to get to work. And if your job is not absolutely essential, you’re not emergency, then you need to stay at home. But emergency personnel need to position themselves where they can report to their workstations, you know, on time. And so I went ahead and closed the workstations because we, people had been hither and yon. We, you know, we weren’t quite, we weren’t quite ready to implement the refined COOP plans. We came back the next day with some limited workstations and later in the day, I went ahead to shut them down again. And so, but but in all of that, then there’s so much preparation that went on before that, in refining, teleworking policies, assigning work, you know, but just trying to keep that social distancing in place, as best we can, both in the workplace and urging folks to do that at home.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. And kind of on that note, like, the essential personnel I got, you know, I remember that from whatever hurricanes blew through when I was in North Carolina. Like, you know, different different people are going to different designations but for an emergency like this where it may be, you know, several months you know, you’re gonna need your, you know, payroll clerk or your, your key staff to do their job but you know, normally that they may not be an essential personnel. So, how have you guys like had to adjust and kind of that front? Like have more people been asked to like, you know, occasionally come in or how have you adjusted like, what, what is essential and kind of that in in that for the organization or?

Blaine Williams

Sure, no, that’s a great question. And that is the that was our old nomenclature as well. And then there were some people that took issue with well, I’m not non essential, you know, so, we did migrate to emergency and non emergency but, you know, we do consider payroll as an emergency function because it supports those emergency functions. So, there are some nuances there but it is clear both in our job descriptions and when people are hired, that you know that in the event of, you know, an emergency we need you to be able to perform. Now, obviously, with payroll, you know, if there are things that can be done at home, that’s where we try to leave them. If they have to come in, then they’re allowed to do so. But in all cases, in the workplace, again, we want to divide people into teams. And also, and and you know, and one, Team A can work home on Mondays and Team B’s in the office, and then we flip flop depending on the schedule, just to just to take more people out of the office and make sure that people can stay safe. And so, yes, to your point, we’re very explicit about what is emergency or non emergency. And, you know, even those roles are changing now, and I’ll have you consider this. We’ve just talked about this, this morning. Our emergency personnel folks have children that they need to take care of. Our schools are shut down and I know this is common across the nation. So who is going to, do these folks not report to work because they need to take care of their children. And so we tried to stand up a camp, from our Leisure Services staff to support those folks. And and we weren’t able to get enough folks to, you know, you can’t watch kids in the absolutely 100% social distancing. And we had, we didn’t have a huge response to that, but in the end, in our solid waste department, we did have four kids that needed to be watched to have some critical drivers on in place. And so we’re making another run at it. And, of course, we’re not forcing our employees to do these types of things. We do have volunteers. But we may need to go through the formality of actually reallocating their current position to a new position that is of emergency status, and pay them accordingly. Even if that is only a two week thing, and so I know everybody’s struggling and trying to get through all this and the numerous leave implications that are going on right now. But no, we’re very, we’re very particular about our definitions of emergency and we try to be consistent about.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah. And you mentioned this a little earlier, but kind of, I would imagine, you know, three, four weeks ago before, you know, all this happened, there probably weren’t a ton of, you know, teleworkers in Athens Clarke County. I could be wrong. But and now like there’s a huge chunk of your workforce that is. So what is that, you know, roll-out in changing those policies, like the technology piece of that of this, like, what does that been like?

Blaine Williams

Well, I will say that to give staff credit in this organization. So I’ve been manager for about four years and took over for an incredible manager and had a lot of turnover in department heads since then, just because of you know people aging out or that type of thing. But what we did not have before was a huge investment in technology. So we’ve been catching up. For instance, just last year finished up our conversion to voice over IP for our phone system. So, and then what we had was sort of, again, a lukewarm adoption of that technology and like everybody else, we’ve suddenly in, you know, forced people to use the technology. The Monday after the spring break that I’ve alluded to, obviously, there was a need for a management team meeting and even then some people were like, okay, well, where do we all meet and like, no, we’re not meeting together, get the WebEx out. Well, we never use that. Well, it’s time to learn. And so we’ve kind of forced people into using a technology and it’s been uncomfortable, but it’s been great and, and Ben, I know that this thought has probably crossed your mind too. It’s gonna be interesting to see in the wake of this, you know, those things that have couple fundamentally altered the way that we work. And certainly this is one of them. Because you know, there’s that divide with older folks, if you will, that, you know, there’s that thought, well, if you’re at home, and you’re not really working, and you’re distracted, so you really need to be in the office to do your work. And of course, we know what the younger generations that that flexibility and the ability to be even more productive in a different setting is quite possible. And so that tension was always there. And I think that this tidal wave is just sort of blown that over at this point. So no so we so we were well positioned technology wise, we had a lot more laptops than we did in the last few years, not as many as we needed, as it turns out, and and you know, we’re seeing that productivity is, we don’t have great data, but it appears that we’re not missing too much of a beat for the services that we do have open.

Ben Kittelson

Well, that’s good to hear. Yeah, and it to your point, I think it’d be fascinating to see you if like as a profession, what happens to you know, some of some of these like forced adaptations and whether or not they become permanent. Like we we did an interview That’s airing I think it’ll air before this episode though, with a city clerk from California where they they moved all their meetings online and they’re taking public comment on YouTube and and like if you could do that, you know, in an emergency issue situation, can you just start doing those kind of things as a normal business?

Blaine Williams

Yep. And we’re in we’re experimenting with the same things with our Mayor and Commission as well.

Ben Kittelson

So, one thing I’m curious and I know, you know, Athens is, you know, City County government, so you guys traditionally, public health has, you know, a role that the counties play, and in Georgia, I was reading, it sounds like it’s a little more of a state function there. So what has kind of been the relationship between Athens Clarke County and the Department of Public Health? How have you guys kind of worked together or communicated and kind of through this?

Blaine Williams

So it is a state function. We do, they do have a county presence. And as a local government, we do provide some funds to them, you know, to augment their services that we’d like to see. But in this role out, you know, it’s, it’s, you know, the director, we have an interim director, so I did not know him before this event, and may not have regardless of the event just because of the nature of the transition. And he’s been very responsive, but it is not as clean as I think perhaps in North Carolina where Josh is from. He’s been telling me a little bit about how that works there. You know, and I can see from public health on the one hand, having some continuity across the state or region is helpful and then in the in the these types of times, being able to be responsive to local needs, you know, the state is not as nimble as we can be. And I think all the local government practitioners, I have to think, find themselves with the same frustration I’m experiencing. And that, you know, there’s so many things that we can do. And normally, that this public health, you know, interceding with medical professionals and trying to stem the tide of the spread. I mean, there’s some indirect things that we can do, and we are, and of course, our elected officials have more power. But, you know, we’re, we’re sort of on the sidelines on this one, and we’re hoping that public health can do what it can. And now that the governor has passed his state Shelter in Place Order, which is arguably a little less stringent than or a lot less stringent, depending on who you talk to here. You know, we’re just, we’re sort of in a cold mode and and we default to making sure that we can continue to provide our services to our citizens.

Ben Kittelson

Mm hmm. Well, and the one thing I wanted to make sure to ask you about, because Athens is like a college town, and there’s a huge, you know, presence at the University of Georgia. And like, we were kind of going through the dates here, you know that your guys’s local declaration was the week after their spring break. So what was the, you know, preparation with the university, the communication, there like, well, I assume the kids I mean, I assume schools like classes are canceled and kids are kind of either back home or, you know, maybe there’s some of them still in dorms, but what what’s that been like and how have you kind of worked with the University of Georgia through this?

Blaine Williams

Well, the years ago, they had the foresight to create a position that is a community liaison who I interact with, you know, a great deal of trust in and we we you know, we meet monthly with their higher ups with for breakfast and and some of our mid level folks meet quarterly to make sure that we’re coordinating together. You know, but sort of like the public health discussion, the decision to shut down the university is a Board of Regents so as a statewide governing entity, and so, you know, regardless of what the university did or didn’t want to do, here in Athens, the Board of Regents really made the call. And in fact, I think the University on one morning made one call and in the afternoon, it was reversed by the Board of Regents. So just to illustrate that, so what the Board of Regents did was basically send all the students home, told him he couldn’t stay in the dorms. In some cases, they didn’t even let them collect their stuff. They just said you need to leave right now. And we’ll allow you to come back and get it when it’s appropriate. And I think they’ve been working through that. So the that students aren’t here, now, there are some that, you know, live off campus and they’ve chosen to stay. We don’t know what that census is. But the university, you know, has really kind of empty the town, which I think is helpful, given the nature of the crisis that we’re in.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, it makes social distancing a little easier, you know, tens of thousands of people aren’t in town anymore.

Blaine Williams

It does. And, and I hate to generalize, you know, where we have found people that are not complying with the stay in place, the shelter in place and social distancing. I mean, generally, it does tend to be younger folks that are doing that. And I hate to do that, because I hate to generalize number one, but that’s been our experience here. And, and so we’re still trying to work through that. I think as this goes on, though, we’re seeing less of that, as the gravity of the situation starts to weigh on everybody. You know, our parks are closed, but you know, we’re not. We’re surfing on arresting people, our police officers will approach in a car and they’ll say over the loudspeaker. And in the band condition, we’re very quick to tell us and look, you know, you need to be this is about education and trying to gain compliance, not a punitive approach, which is ours anyway. So we’ve done that. And we saw a lot of the parks really, I mean, you know, it’s the time of year, it’s the nature of this crisis for people to be cooped up and why not, when it’s beautiful outside, let’s go outside and just, you know, hang out and but I think people are getting it now that is wearing on.

Ben Kittelson

Well, and that’s an interesting, you know, policy and management issue too, is like how do you enforce this? And that’s interesting that your board, your Commission and Mayor said that you know, this needs to be more educational rather than punitive. Like, has that, you know, what have been the ways that you guys have been trying to enforce, you know, this, this, this this shelter in place and stay at home. And I imagine there’s been closing of bars and all that kind of stuff too that, like you have to kind of go around and make sure that then, you know, that people aren’t gathering the way they normally would.

Blaine Williams

Yes, you’re right. And and, you know, at the very beginning of this, and I remember too, that we were one of the first in the state. So there was some instances where our officers had to go and and into a, like a national chain restaurant here. There were about 20 people in there. They, our officers asked for the manager and walked outside with the manager didn’t make a scene and said, do you understand what what has been passed here and what this means and the manager once he understood, then he went back in and he asked everybody to leave. You know, so we had to do that a few times. We did have employees calling and sort of writing out there employers for making them still work, smoke shops or video game, you know, things that were clearly non essential in the in our ordinance. And so that’s the same thing that we did. And of course, police officers can seem pretty heavy handed so quickly, we brought our code enforcement officers back online. And again, nobody’s getting a ticket, they’re getting a notice of non compliance and asking people to comply. And I will say too that, I think by and large, you know, we are a university community, we tend to be the blue spot in a red state. Most of our populace was for this type of thing that live here. Now, it’s very difficult to have such a stringent order and being one of the first and even now adjacent counties don’t have it before the governor’s order did not have anything in place. So you really have to be you know, it’s not a police day. It’s not martial law, but it’s just getting people to understand the wisdom of what the elected officials wanted to achieve. And our folks and the good news was, that wasn’t a shift in culture for us. And that’s how we work anyway. Before we write a ticket for court for code enforcement, we give people 30 days to rectify non compliance. So it’s just an extension of our thinking in a different way.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, that’s, that’s really interesting. Um, out of curiosity I mean, you mentioned the kind of essential services and not being part of the ordinance city hall passed. And since you were one of the you know, the first in your state to issue this kind of shelter in place, what where did you even find like ordinance language that addresses like this kind of pandemic or this kind of situation like, like, how did that get developed? Like even something like as basic as the like language of the ordinance. Like what, Like, I imagine there’s not like a model one that you can copy or maybe there is.

Blaine Williams

Well, there’s not. And, and I will tell you that I’m going to be frank, and that that was a real struggle. And the reason it was, is that typically, you know, what we try to do is have our elected officials give us general direction or give us some normative statements. And then we use the capacity and expertise of the staff to come back with ideas, and then vet them through the elected officials and choose a course of action. In this case, there were several commissioners who felt very passionate about this. And one of which was an attorney, who is an attorney. And so the way that it was unfolding was that, that that the, the terms of and how this would get implemented, because everybody’s familiar with, you know, sort of federal rule making. I mean, you have Congress give this sort of broad mandate and then, you know, the executive branch kicks in to gear and they they flesh it out, and they work out the details and anticipate potential consequences. Well, in this case, it was it was coming very much top down. And, and so, you know, in it, and basically had a conversation with the mayor and elected officials saying, look, you know, typically this is where you direct the manager to develop these things. But I hear that you have your own thoughts on that. So perhaps you want to legislate this. And so, not to be it wasn’t a take my ball and go home thing, it was being mindful that the elected officials had very clear ideas about what they wanted to see. And so, you know, you can argue that there’s, there’s a million different ways to do this, and there’s more efficient ways to do this. But the way that it unfolded to answer your question, then was that the Commission basically wrote the ordinance, the attorney, our county attorney in house, vetted it and gave some feedback and very quickly, you know, it got passed. Now, I will say it did not get passed the first time. So that Monday after spring break, this ordinance was called for an emergency session. And it was too much too fast too quick, not all the commissioners had been consulted. Which is, that was sort of the trepidation I saw and how it was unfolding very rapidly. And it took a few days for them to come back. And then three days hence, unanimously pass the shelter in place. So, you know, for people that that for policymakers developers formulation, it was fascinating to see how the interaction went and quite predictably, you know, the passion and speed and urgency of the event. In the end, you know, the classic approach of buy in, getting buy in and consensus was what carried the day.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, that is interesting. Well, and kind of the next stage of a policy response I wanted to make sure we talked about was kind of the economic fallout of the shelter in place. Um, it’s been interesting to see the conversation at the federal level, obviously. But then, like you guys, I know on Tuesday, I’m thinking maybe Mondays, right, March 31st, had a session to discuss a local economic package. So can you talk maybe a little bit about what’s in that and kind of where did that idea come from? And now, what are you guys trying to do?

Blaine Williams

Okay, well, that’s a great question. And I do want to remind everybody that that what we’re experiencing now has never happened in most of our lifetimes. Schools have never been closed, literally has never been canceled. You know, businesses have never been shut down for weeks on end and probably going to be months. And so on the front end of this trying to, you know, understanding clearly the implications of a shelter in place shut down, knowing that economically and this not being, as you suggested earlier, or something that we advice we got from the state or federal government or another local government, it was pretty daunting to understand very clearly the implications economically of what we were going to put into place even while our neighbors were not. So, and the elected officials, you know, being elected officials wanting to send the message to the people that while they were, you know, putting into place pretty variant, impactful and some would argue invasive, were being sued legislation that they were also there to support those that were being impacted. So there was an urgency even in the declaration to try to legislate some relief package. You know, and I did share with the mayor that that in the speed to this that the impacts had not been considered, and staff had not been consulted, and that we really would like the opportunity just to share so that informed decisions could be made. And thankfully the mayor with his leadership, you know, that carried the day. And they gave me a week as a manager to come back to them with some some ideas. And so, I will tell you that there wasn’t a lot to find when you canvass the nation. A lot of stuff out there, I will tell you has to do with local community foundations or United Way, you know, providing, you know, partnerships to support businesses, nonprofits. But as far as local governments, there’s very few, although I did find several instances and they were in other states. So looking at what our particular situation, I felt like things such as a local revolving loan fund for business would be good at zero or no interest. I’m sorry, zero or low interest. And I’ll tell you also Ben, not just being knee jerk reactive, but if we were going to capitalize such things that they could survive this response to be helpful to the community in the future. So there was the business revolving loan fund, there was a nonprofit revolving loan fund that we suggested. There was some direct assistance through local nonprofits. And our data here tells us that even before the event, housing fragility and food insecurity, were issues, and that those are going to be exacerbated by this event. So we had specific things we wanted to accomplish. Reviving this idea of knowing that a lot of people are going to be laid off, the New Deal, CCC, the Community Conservation Corps, you know, having that here in Athens, and that was, you know, we do have a sizable poverty, population in poverty. And so workforce development has been something of late we’ve been talking about, so if we could pay people to do some work that would help the community while they were either laid off or trying to usher them into a pipeline of workforce development. The Athens Community Corps was something that reflected that, as well as neighbors helping neighbors and trying to harness people’s civic mindedness here, which is very, very much alive. So those were a host of things that we suggested. We were lucky enough to have some ready funds in the form of some of our, some fund balance that the Commission had set aside the year before for what they called a prosperity package but had not been able to come to resolution how to use that. So as part of their declaration, they said, okay, manager, here’s $3 million. Now tell us how we can spend this to support the community. In the wake of all that, what we’ve found is that there’s a gratuities clause in the Georgia constitution that prevents us as a local government from providing direct assistance. So for all the, you know, the great work that we did and, and people heralded, most of it’s illegal. So, but that is innovation, right? We were trying things that we’d never done before. And until we were able to articulate some thoughts that we had, the attorneys really couldn’t react to it. So we’re still working through how to accomplish what we need to, but I will also tell you this, and I told the elected officials this, I understand the need to show people right now that we care, but understand that this is going to be a long response. And so don’t don’t be tempted to give all of your resources in one shot. You know, let’s draw this out. Because three weeks from now, a month from now is when people really might need it the most. So we, you know, there’s been this, you know, that’s the theme, I think, with the legislation with the roll-out. There’s that rush to do it, and then there’s the need for some deliberation to make good sound decisions, and hopefully based on data. Yeah, yeah.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah. That’s what seems so hard about this is that you need to move fast. But at the end, there’s a pressure to move fast, but at the same time, like, you want to make the right decision. And that yeah, that’s really hard.

Blaine Williams

Well, that yeah, that’s what we’ve struggled with. But, you know, it is, it is fascinating to really see at least our workforce, and I think the local governments across the nation stepping up to that challenge. We’ve adapted, you know, and I think the first two weeks for us where we were just in total reactive mode, even though we had our COOP plans in place and we, you know, the first day of the new the new world, if you will, when we returned from spring break, we we pretty much had everything in place that we needed to you know, in the wake of the legislation, answering questions for the citizens, am I essential or non essential business you know, running down complaints, all of the leave implications internally. All of these things were things that we, weren’t even on our radar two weeks prior. And so we were totally in a reactive mode. And I think it took the first two weeks to find our feet. And now we’re focusing on, you know, more fully on proactive response and, and really bringing in some of our initiatives that were in place before, slowly bringing them back online.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Well, kind of on that note, is there anything that you kind of ran off a little bit of a list there, but is there anything on I like that you’ve had to deal with the challenge that it’s emerged that, like, you were surprised by or like, you didn’t expect to maybe, you know, the so so long ago, less than three weeks ago, but like anything that like, you know, even in, you know, trying to prepare or like you wouldn’t have ever thought to deal with that?

Blaine Williams

Well, I just, you know, we’ve been fortunate with this government that with the quality of our workforce, we we’ve always been a quadrant two type position, that that we always plan ahead where we’re prepared. We think down the road long term about things that are important but not urgent. And in that way, we’re very, we’ve been very effective. And this really pushed us out of that quadrant. And it was very uncomfortable. And I still feel like a failure in many ways, in the way that we’ve just reacted to this, you know, some days it feels like we’re doing great and other days, you know, I think the, the feeling of helplessness, of some degree, and I know that’s, that’s really amplified through our elected officials. And we’ve had to tell them, you know, we that’s just not what we cannot do that that’s not that’s the public health job. That’s the state’s job. You know, if you if you want change there, you know, we have to follow what they tell us to do. You know, you’re gonna have to work through other channels. And so I think the helplessness and the frustration of being in a purely reactive mode the first couple of weeks. And then, you know, our citizens, these are the times when the citizens turn to the local government and just say, tell us what we do, you know, what should we do? And you know, as an activist community, we spent large parts of our time defending what we do. And it’s a good it’s a healthy, it’s a healthy thing, I think, for people to question government. But the almost overnight transition to you know, now tell us what’s next and tell us what we need to do in in a place that we were very reactive. It just really, it was very different. And I’m not telling I’m not there’s there’s no wisdom there and there’s no revelation there. But that surprised me. Yeah, because I guess I had gotten comfortable in the rhythm that we were in, of being, you know, on the forefront of issues. And in being well prepared, it was a big jolt to not to not be in that mode.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, that’s fair. Yeah, that’s totally fair. Well, I can’t imagine the shifting gears to go from trying to listen to the community and respond to what engage with residents and talk through what you know, interest groups are interested in the city doing to them turning to you and being like, tell us tell us what what should be done. That that that in itself is like a, like almost someone maybe from, how some local governments have operated.

Blaine Williams

Well, and as you know, even in that brief vacuum, you know, we have seen where some citizens have worked to fill the gap and that’s what you want. I mean, you want that type of civic mindedness. So we just had a great WebEx yesterday with a with a very diverse group of leaders across the community talking about how to join forces and and build a neighbors helping neighbors pro gram, and augment the work that they’re doing and also, to export that to other neighborhoods that don’t have any type of infrastructure at all as far as listservs or, or phone trees or anything like that. So that was so you know, that’s back to where we’re used to being, is coming up with really new and innovative ideas and getting people engaged and, and so I do think we’re, we are finding a rhythm again.

Ben Kittelson

That’s good to hear. What’s next? What do you guys what do you what do you guys kind of working through now and what do you see kind of having to deal with the next, you know, week or month or I know everything changes so rapidly with this that it’s hard to predict but what do you kind of have on on your to do list of organization will be kind of managing through?

Blaine Williams

Well, the first is figuring out the governor’s order. We had it all figured out, and to your point that should our shelter in place went into effect Thursday night. Friday morning, the phone started ringing. And so we were trying to sort through the legislation that that had been crafted by the elected officials. And it wasn’t without bumps in the road. But we got all that worked out for the most part. And now the governor has come in with something different, and we’re starting over there. But, but looking down the road, Ben, you know, our fiscal year ends June 30. So the other night when I presented, the resiliency package, I also presented the proposed budget for this coming year. And we have planned well, we do have about two months worth of operating reserves that we can call on if need be. Now that is also being weighed with the amount of relief that our commissioners want to flood the community with. And so the conversation that we’re having now is, you know, we got this, we can all look at what the curve looks like. And hopefully by mid June, you know, things are settled down. We know from the Spanish flu and from other countries that this thing can flame up again. And then in the midst of all that, just the economic slowdown and the jobless claims at record highs and doubling, are we looking at a long term recession or depression? And so, and again, I’m trying to preach patience to everybody that you know, we’ve got to be in this for the long haul. We’re only a couple of weeks away from this thing really unfolding. And I know there are a lot of people hurting right now. And I can’t believe how quickly the federal government came through with the Cares Act. Because you know, I think all of our experiences, you’re talking about weeks or months and some some of that Cares Act, it may take weeks or months to get out there. in all fairness. But the budget is what we’re focused on and we want to plan well, because at the end of the day, regardless of how this plays out, we have to provide services to our citizens. We cannot afford a break in continuity.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah. I feel for all my friends and colleagues in the budget and finance world of having probably done a ton of work to prepare forecasts and budget documents only to have it totally up ended and like a ton of uncertainty entered into this process. And yes, I think I want to do a whole episode on on how do you how do you even plan for a budget in this kind of environment? Because it’s hard.

Blaine Williams

I know your dedicated audience is all things local government. So I think as much as there’s some despair inherent in all this, it is also fascinating, because it’s something that we’ve never lived through before. And so if you are able to detach yourself and clinically look at this, it’s it’s, it’s very organic. It’s very much based on the strengths or the weaknesses that a local government organization had in place prior to this. And, it’s in its forcing its forcing a new reality, a new approach to the work. And as you said earlier, it’s going to be really interesting to see how that plays out.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Well, this, this has been kind of a heavy conversation. I really appreciate you doing it. But I do want to end on maybe lighter note before before we kind of sign off for our interview today. I always like to, I usually start my interviews with this question, but I’d like to hear how people ended up in this in this career and in this in the local government, you know, world. So for you, what was your career path to ending up in local government? What led you to this field and to kind of your current position?

Blaine Williams

Well, I, I, you know, early on as a high school student, I was just fascinated by how human beings could live together. You know, what, what type of glue was required that people can live in relative harmony. I mean, it’s never been perfect. And it seems that you know, again, not a communist state, I mean, it’s not that government is everything, but government is so foundational. And so that always captivated my interest. And I was lucky. I was fortunate enough, you know, to do things like boy state in high school or the Model United Nations and, and the more that I did those types of things, the more fascinated I was, and then in college it’s one of those things where I think all of us, you know, when you talk to people that are early in their profession, they’re like, well, how did you get to where you are, and of course, looking backwards is very linear, linear trail to where you got to that when you’re that I didn’t plan to be here. And if you had told me, I would have been very surprised, but, you know, in college, a double major in PoliSci was one i always wanted and, and the chair of the department introduced me to the field of public administration. I took a course and and I was fortunate enough the University of Georgia gave me an assistant-ship and in even then, you know, you have the opportunity to go state or federal and for me, and I had friends that did, close friends that currently work for the CDC and and for the Secret Service. But to me it was being close to where the people and the policies really took place, that and that going back to high school, I couldn’t have articulated that but it was the interest that I had that just really coalesced as the further I went through my formal training. And so and then from there, Ben quite honestly and probably true for a lot of folks, there are a lot of good people that were nice to me, that gave me the opportunity, that believed in me and and it was also you know, positioning myself for when the opportunity, when the door did open that I did I did have the you know the skills and abilities to do that. And I will offer this to you and others earlier in their careers. You know, you wouldn’t be listening to this podcast if you didn’t have a natural curiosity about the profession. So that is key. The second thing is, hopefully, you’ll have a supervisor or a boss, or somebody that you work for, you can do more than you’re being asked to do. And if they will let you work on things that are of interest to you, that will help the organization you’re working for and expands your horizons. That only helps you more in your next opportunities. And so I was fortunate to have a series of managers that I worked for that I would go and ask, hey, I got my work done right now. Can I start working on this other thing over here? Or can I start a program with the employees and leadership, so on and so forth, and they always were willing to let me do that. And then when it came to my next opportunity, I had it and it wasn’t self serving, like I’m doing this so I’ll have a better resume. But it did have that indirect effect. And so because what I think elected officials are really looking for are generalists. And it’s so hard for somebody earlier in their career to break out of that specialty, that specialization that they necessarily have to enter just to get their foot in the door. So I would just offer that, you know, as that that’s how I ended up where I was, a lot of people were good to me, and also took advantage of a lot of opportunities to learn about something I really loved.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome, awesome. Well said. So my final final last question is, we have a tradition to let our guests pick the exit music for today’s episode. So if you could be the GovLove DJ, and you could pick a song to close out the episode, what song would you pick?

Blaine Williams

Well, we’ve talked about uncertainty, response, building for the future, and a natural love for the profession I think we all share. So I think I’m gonna go for “I got the feeling” by James Brown.

Ben Kittelson

That’s a great thing. That ends our episode for today. Blaine, thank you so much for coming on and talking with me and taking the time. I know this is a busy time so finding some some time to talk with with me and sharing your kind of lessons and what you’re doing with our GovLove audience. I really appreciate it.

Blaine Williams

Sounds good Ben. Thank you.

Ben Kittelson

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