Building a better government

The Carl Vinson Institute of Government is the go-to organization for Georgia’s public officials

Building a better government

Sabrina Cape leads a three-hour class on Financial Management at the Association County Commissioners of Georgia annual meeting in Savannah.

Photo by: PETER FREY

While others get up for a bathroom or cookie break, Nancy Mikell stays at the table looking at the Clinch County audit. In the first hour of a training class on financial reporting, Mikell has learned a lot about how to read an internal audit and has found some things in her county’s document that she doesn’t understand.

“This (course) is providing me with a lot of questions to go back and ask,” says Mikell, a first term Clinch County commissioner, who took office in January. “I really don’t know how people can do their jobs effectively without this training.”

More than 800 county officials gathered in Savannah in May for the annual meeting of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. In addition to programs put on by the association, a big part of the three-day event was the training offered by UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

Over the course of the event, county representatives, including elected officials and employees, learned about county government law, relationships between county commissions and their staffs, capital improvements projects and financial management. Trainers from the Vinson Institute also held sessions for county clerks and leadership programs.

Derrick Ogletree, an information systems manager from Thomas County, took a basic financial management class on Saturday and then an advanced class on Sunday.

“Today it’s all settling in,” Ogletree said Sunday during a short break. “I got a lot of information yesterday. I’m understanding a lot today. ”

A retired public safety officer in Thomas County, Ogletree is part of a small staff that runs the county government offices. As such, he must be schooled in a lot of different areas. In addition to the convention, he has attended training classes offered by the Vinson Institute in Tifton and a course that the institute brought to Thomas County specifically for the employees there.

The advanced financial management class, which runs for three hours, could be tedious. But trainer Sabrina Cape keeps it interesting, moving around the room to make sure the class is on the right page and randomly asking attendees to comment on their own county audits.

She tells them what to watch for in an audit that can signal trouble.

“If you see the words ‘but’ and ‘except for’ you should be concerned,” she says.

She teaches them the right questions to ask when they are reviewing an audit.

“Often it’s about miscommunication,” she says. “Just because you had an audit doesn’t mean there isn’t fraud occurring. There are always areas of improvement.”

The institute began at UGA in 1927 and by the mid-’40s was offering substantive training to local government officials, says Jennifer Frum, interim vice president for public service and outreach. The first training session for newly elected state government officials began in 1958. The Biennial Institute, which was held for the 27th time last December, has been noted by scholars for the quality of the legislative training and professional development it provides Georgia legislators and other elected state leaders.

About 25 years ago, the Vinson Institute entered into an agreement with the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) and the Georgia Municipal Association to provide training in a more systematic way to new city and county officials and staff.

That in itself is significant, says Ross King, ACCG executive director.

“Very few of our counterparts across the country have had a relationship with a university like we have had with UGA,” King says. “I know of none with a quarter century relationship with an institute to provide training.”

Under state law all newly elected city and county officials are required to have basic training to learn about things like open meetings laws, financial reporting and conflicts of interest—areas in which many are not familiar before being elected.

Many continue well past the requisite 42 hours. Metter Mayor Billy Trapnell has logged more than 250 hours of training since he took office 18 years ago.

“Very rarely do I not get something out of every class I take,” says Trapnell, installed in June as president of the Georgia Municipal Association, which represents 512 cities. “You do your best trying to keep up by reading magazines and newspapers. These classes just put a little more detail into it.”

The Biennial Institute, offered every other year in December following statewide elections, provides an opportunity for both new and incumbent members to discuss current and emerging issues in order to prepare for the upcoming session of the General Assembly. The Vinson Institute works closely with the leadership of the State House and Senate to plan and implement this nonpartisan event. Institute faculty and staff are also called on to help state leaders with specific concerns. Currently the institute is working with Gov. Nathan Deal’s Water Supply Task Force as well as his Georgia Competitiveness Initiative, partnering with the Georgia Department of Economic Development and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce in developing the state’s economic development strategy.

Faculty and staff at the institute keep a close watch for changes in state laws so that their training programs are current. They also watch for special areas of interest to local and state governments. A trend lately has been toward executive coaching for state government administrators, says Laura Meadows, interim director of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

“We constantly take a look at all of our curriculum,” Meadows says. “We try to keep our finger on the pulse of government.”

That attention to clients’ needs is at least one reason more than 17,000 public officials in Georgia registered for the institute’s training programs in the last fiscal year.

“For local government officials we’re the go-to organization for professional development and continuing education,” Frum says. “They’ll stop coming to us if we are not relevant and meaningful to them.”

Marilyn Stone, in her third term as a commissioner from Oglethorpe County, says she’s enjoyed a wide spectrum of courses offered by the institute.

“I think they’ve really helped awaken me to other concepts,” she says during a break in a course called “Personal Power and Influencing Strategies.” “You’ve got people here from everywhere. I’ve learned that what works in big cities can also work in rural areas.”

That’s the beauty of bringing together local government officials from across the state, Frum says.

“In a training course we might have someone from DeKalb County and someone from Dodge County,” she says. “There is great potential to learn from each other.”

“The sharing of ideas and networking that takes place is very important. They can call on their peers to see how they are dealing with similar situations.”

At their annual meeting, county commissioners also get to visit facilities and see programs that they might consider for their own communities. During the ACCG convention, staff members from the Vinson Institute took commissioners on a tour of the expanded Chatham County jail, the Tybee Island Pavilion and the new county animal shelter, a 14,000-square-feet facility that cost $1.8 million.

The new building, with 116 kennels and runs for stray and abandoned dogs, replaced the former facility, which had 38 cages.

“It provides a much more humane environment for the animals,” says Assistant Chatham County Manager Pat Monahan.

At the rear of the tour group, paying special attention to the new facility is Heard County Commission Chairperson June Jackson. Heard County has animal control but the facility is much smaller and needs to be expanded, she says.

“We’re going to hopefully add to it next year,” Jackson says. “And we need to add additional staff.”

Jim Higdon, executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association, says the entire state benefits from well-trained public officials.

“I think having better informed elected officials about issues of the day, current laws that affect how they can and should operate is extremely important,” Higdon says. “That’s what the training is all about. ”

“The intangible is our elected officials appreciate the fact that they get a certificate from the university. There’s some status connected to that.”

Frum has seen that firsthand when she visits with public officials across the state.

“To see that hanging in their offices, it’s so wonderful,” she says. “It’s like a validation of everything we do.”

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