Fulton County commissioners Wednesday fired County Manager Dwight Ferrell just one year after they hired him.
The move leaves Georgia’s largest county without a permanent top administrator at a crucial time. The county is looking for spending cuts as it begins to prepare its 2015 budget. And it faces increased scrutiny from a General Assembly eager to reshape county government to its liking.
Wednesday’s decision came after the weeks of protests from the Fulton employees’ union, which characterized Ferrell as unresponsive to the rank and file.
Commissioners voted 4-2 to fire Ferrell, then voted 6-0 to name Finance Director Patrick O’Connor the acting county manager.
“To have a productive workforce, you’ve got to have a leader that people are willing to follow,” said union Executive Director Gregg Fann, who asked commissioners to fire Ferrell. “The message came loud and clear that he was not the one for the job.”
Ferrell left the meeting before the vote and could not be reached for comment.
Commission Chairman John Eaves declined to say in detail why commissioners fired the county manager. But commissioners made it clear Ferrell had done nothing illegal and had not failed to perform his duties.
“We felt it was best to go in a different direction,” Eaves said.
Commissioners hired Ferrell in September 2013, and he immediately faced difficult budget decisions. For years the county had been relying on reserves to balance its budget. With reserves running out, Ferrell initially recommended steep cuts to a host of county services.
Commissioners instead approved a 17 percent property tax increase to offset some cuts – a tax increase critics say violates a state law capping Fulton tax rates until 2015.
Over the last year Ferrell reorganized the county administration and implemented new budget procedures that require department heads to justify expenditures.
Commissioners Emma Darnell and Liz Hausmann voted against firing the manager. Hausmann said Ferrell was a victim of county commissioners’ unwillingness to make difficult budget decisions.
“He came into a situation in crisis,” she said. “He was asked to implement a budget but was never allowed to do so.”
Hausmann said she’s disappointed the decision on Ferrell’s future was not postponed until 2015, when a slate of new county commissioners could have had their say.
Now Fulton County is looking for a top administrator for the second time in two years. The previous manager, Zachary Williams, left in December 2012, and it took commissioners nine months to agree to hire Ferrell to replace him.
O’Connor, the finance director, was one of the finalists for the job when Ferrell was hired.
“I am humbled by the Board’s confidence in me,” O’Connor said. “I look forward to leading the county and serving our citizens through this difficult financial period and the continued restructuring and right-sizing of our county government.”