Metro Atlanta governments grapple with exiting executives

Here’s a look at some of the vacancies created in the local governments of metro Atlanta’s five core counties in the last year due to retirements and people leaving for new jobs. Some positions have since been filled.

CLAYTON COUNTY

Board of Elections and Registration director

Chief Staff Attorney

Human Resources Director

Information Technology Director

COBB COUNTY

Communications Director

County Clerk

Community Development Director

Transportation Director

Support Services Director

911 Director

DEKALB COUNTY

Finance Director

Deputy Finance Director

Parks & Recreation Director*

Sanitation Director*

FULTON COUNTY

Fulton County Police Chief

Health & Wellness Director

GWINNETT COUNTY

Planning and Development Department director

* Will be leaving in August.

Source: The local governments

In the last 18 months, local governments around metro Atlanta have been on a shopping spree, quietly trying to fill vacancies created by top-ranking executives who’ve left for new jobs or retired.

Clayton County has lost several high-ranking officials in the last few months. Among the departed: the director of human resources, the head of information technology and the county’s top legal counsel, who each went to new jobs.

Departures have become so frequent in Clayton lately that one employee quipped at one going-away gathering that the CVS near the government administration complex in Jonesboro recently ran out of retirement and bon voyage cards.

“We’ve lost some good people,” said commissioner Gail Hambrick, who has made employee retention part of her re-election platform.

Clayton isn’t the only government losing top talent. In the last year, metro Atlanta’s five core counties have lost nearly two dozen high-ranking government executives.

The churn in local governments has become a national issue. A study of human resources managers set to be released soon by The Center for State and Local Government Excellence says recruiting and retention is the top priority for state and local governments for the second year in a row.

“Institutional knowledge is something that really can’t be replaced,” said Mike Maciag at Governing magazine in Washington, D.C. “But if they’ve done succession-planning or have been grooming people to step up, they’re in a much better place.”

More than half - 52 percent - of local government workers are between the ages of 45 and 64, according to Elizabeth Kellar of the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. Additionally, local governments already have seen their workforce shrink in the past decade due to budget cuts and the 2008 recession.

“We have an aging workforce and increasingly we’re seeing people retire,” Kellar said. “There was a lag in retirement right after the 2008 recession but that’s no longer the case.”

Top-level departures have forced metro Atlanta governments into steady rounds of musical chairs as they pull from one department to run another on an interim basis and scramble to capture institutional knowledge before it heads out the door.

“This is a very large issue. We really haven’t dealt with this issue at this scale in America ever,” said Matt Hauer, a demographer at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. “The loss of institutional knowledge is going to be a challenge going forward.”

Fulton County has been on a major recruiting binge since County Manager Dick Anderson came aboard in March 2015. Last year, for example, Fulton’s police chief and health director both retired. In the last year, Fulton has recruited for or created nearly two dozen top jobs, including chief executive officer, chief strategy officer, chief operating officer and purchasing director.

“We had a large number of vacancies in director positions and he has recently completed those recruitments,” said spokeswoman Jessica Corbitt-Dominguez.

DeKalb lost its No. 1 and No. 2 finance officers in January and the directors of sanitation as well as parks and recreation have announced they will be leaving in August.

“We’re taking great pains to get good qualified leaders in place,” said DeKalb county spokesman Burke Brennan.

Clayton is using succession planning and exit interviews to deal with the issue.

Clayton Chief Operating Officer Detrick Stanford takes a pragmatic view.

“Ultimately when you come of age to draw down, a lot of baby boomers are making the decison to go ahead and tap out,” Stanford said. “You’re looking at a workforce in their early to mid-50s who’ve served in leadership positions. They’re looking at other opportunities - either a second career or something less than full-time.”

As Renee Bright sees it, the employee resignations and retirements “come in cycles.” She should know. She was head of Clayton’s HR department before retiring earlier this year. She now works in the HR department for the Fayette County Board of Education.

“I can now walk to work,” the Fayette resident said.

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