New Gwinnett County chairman will have to lead in middle of crisis

Charlotte Nash speaks during the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners meeting at Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO

Charlotte Nash speaks during the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners meeting at Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO

The specifics of the current calamity are new to Charlotte Nash, but the retiring Gwinnett County commission chairman knows what it’s like to step in to the middle of a crisis — as her successor this fall must.

When she was first elected, in 2011, Nash inherited the task of restoring trust in government. Three county commissioners, including the chairman she replaced, had left office amid a bribery scandal. And the government she inherited was still reeling financially from the effects of the Great Recession. She was elected twice more, Nash said, before the tax digest had fully recovered.

"We're in somewhat of a crisis situation right now," Nash said of the coronavirus pandemic. "There are going to be big changes."

When she ran for office the first time, she had one advantage the eight candidates now vying for her job don't: She knew what she was getting into.

When these five Democrats and three Republicans qualified, in early March, the pandemic was in its early days in the United States, and there was no telling the subsequent havoc it would wreak on county budgets, residents' jobs and the health of constituents.

And with the new leader taking the helm of a government that represents an estimated 936,250 people, leads 5,808 full- and part-time employees and manages a $1.84 billion budget — not to mention holds the future of transit connectivity in the region in its hands, with a possible vote in November — the new chairman will be stepping in to an important role not only in the county, but across metro Atlanta.

She’s “not trying to be a fear-monger,” Nash said, but the full extent of the issues her successor will face may not even be clear by the time that person takes the reins of the five-person board. After the June 9 primary election, the situation will continue to change until the general election in November.

For candidate David Post, a Republican, the coronavirus pandemic is simply par for the course. Post is a security consultant, and said his primary objective in running was to ensure residents’ safety. That aim doesn’t change now, he said — in fact, it plays to his skills.

“I’ve always worked through crisis,” he said. “You just have to be able to handle things, do what’s best, and not panic.”

If he wins the nomination, he said, Post sees his job as an information gatherer and a filter. Some things may need to change in county government, he said, but he isn’t there yet, so he doesn’t know what they are. The crisis, he said, is going to last a long time. The county needs someone smart at the helm to make those decisions as they come.

George Awuku is taking the opposite tack. The Republican said he thinks — hopes — that the economy will have picked up by next year. He said he might put some plans on the back burner, like a renovation of county parks he’d like to spearhead. But he said if the county focuses on vital services, it will be OK.

Awuku, an engineer, said the most important thing the chairman can do is help get residents back to work.

The third Republican running for chairman, Marcia Neaton, said the pandemic has affirmed her desire to budget starting from zero. She would also look closely at the services the county provides — like libraries — where there might be some wiggle room to save money. During the last recession, the county reduced the library system's hours.

A former county commissioner and an accountant, Neaton said she’d like to create a public-private partnership that would build a two-year program to help residents get on their feet. She said it’s less likely if there are fewer dollars to go around.

Curt Thompson, a Democratic candidate for chairman, said he expects the effects of the pandemic to be worse for county government than the Great Recession. But Thompson, a lawyer and a former state lawmaker, said affordable housing, mass transit and diversity aren't any less important because of it — and focusing on them, as well as planning for the future, could help accelerate the recovery.

“I could foresee it stretching out the timeline, but it doesn’t change the direction,” he said of the expected budget shortfalls. “It will help us with jobs, enable us to compete when the economy gets back booming again.”

Democrat Andy Morgan, a lawyer, also said the effects of the pandemic just go to show the importance of his priorities — affordable housing and economic development.

“Those things don’t change,” he said. “The issues do remain the same.

He said parks, libraries and other services may need to be cut next year to fill holes in the budget.

It’s too soon to know just how much must be cut, said Lee Thompson, Jr., a city attorney and former state lawmaker. But he said if elected, he’ll work to prioritize the projects that are most essential and find those that might be eligible for federal help. The Democrat said his main priority of encouraging better land use and making the zoning process more transparent could continue unabated.

He also said it will remain important to protect first responders, including public health officials. Thompson, Jr. said he won’t plan any cuts until he understands how they might affect the residents who have been and will be hardest hit by the pandemic.

Desmond Nembhard, a restaurateur, also said it’s too soon to know what the effect on the budget will be —just that revenues have “taken a big hit.” But he said essential services must remain.

“Whatever we can put on hold temporarily, we can put it on hold,” the Democrat said. “The funding is just not there.”

For Nicole Love Hendrickson, who has a background in social work, the pandemic has served to highlight the disparities that already existed in the county. She said there’s a need for more of a focus on food insecurity and workforce development. Hendrickson, the former director of the county’s community outreach program, said she can be a voice at the table to reflect the needs of everyday people.

“We need to be a leader in how we address these inequities,” she said. “We should have had things in place so communities wouldn’t suffer as bad as they did.”

Hendrickson said the pandemic shows the importance of the Census, where a lot of the decisions regarding federal funding take root. In the meantime, she, too, said she would delay major purchases and determine what the county could do without in the short-term.

Nash, the outgoing leader, said her advice to the newcomer is to understand the critical issues Gwinnett will face. Over the years, she came to be known as a steady leader for the local government.

“That sounds so boring, but I honestly take pride in that,” she said.

Nash said eliminating furlough days to improve staff morale was a huge part of her success at the beginning. When everything else was "going haywire," she said, it showed employees she had their back.

“While it’s important to be decisive in actions taken, it’s also really important to not create more instability in the decisions that you make,” she said. “The worst thing I could’ve done is gone in and made a bunch of changes and created more instability.”