Georgia’s Top Public Servants

2007 Excellence In Public Service Awards

Judges selecting the recipients for this year’s Excellence in Public Service Awards, presented by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government in partnership with Georgia Trend, were looking for unsung heroes who make sure the quality of life remains high in communities across the state.

“The basic idea is to recognize those who excel at all aspects of public service and to help promote public service as a career path,” says Steve Wrigley, director of the Carl Vinson Institute. “Public servants often face the challenges of high expectations and limited resources, which means they have to do a lot more with less than their counterparts in the private sector.”

This year’s winners are Joe Whorton, senior fellow at the University of Georgia’s Fanning Institute and an expert on local government, in the state and regional category; Evelyn Turner Pugh, mayor pro tem of Columbus, city-elected category; Billy Edwards, Hinesville city manager, city-appointed category; Sam Olens, Cobb County Commission Chairman and chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, county-elected category; and Steve Szablewski, Columbia County administrator, county-appointed category.

The judges, who included representatives from the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, sought to honor the dedication and professionalism of the often-unheralded men and women who toil in the vineyards of government.

“Historically in this country, public service was a high calling,” Wrigley says. “We’ve gotten away from that a little bit, and that is unfortunate because so much about the quality of life in a community is contingent upon the quality of those who are in its public agencies.”

This is the fifth year the awards have been presented. – EL

Joe Whorton

Senior Fellow, Fanning Institute

University of Georgia

As a 20-year-old Oklahoma college student back in the 1960s, Joe Whorton thought he was moving right along on his quest to become a teacher. Then he met the city manager of Oklahoma City at a party and his career path meandered off course. The young student and the man who was to become his mentor hit it off.

“He inspired me,” Whorton recalls. “I was cooking in a Lebanese restaurant but I quit that to go to work for Oklahoma City.”

An internship led to the job as director of a local housing authority. That experience led Whorton back to school for post-graduate work and set him on track to follow two passions, teaching and public service. Those interests converged at the University of Georgia’s (UGA) Fanning Institute, where today he is a senior fellow.

Since arriving at UGA in the late 1970s, Whorton has served as first executive director of the Georgia Rural Development Council and director for the Institute of Community and Area Development, and has assisted governors, lieutenant governors and the General Assembly in shaping public policy. And he has worked in numerous efforts to improve local government.

“Every initiative Joe has been involved in has had a profound impact on the landscape of leadership and governance in this state,” says his letter of nomination.

Whorton has helped shape and standardize many of the policies that guide Georgia’s local governments today. While his public service continues to influence the operations of the state’s local governments, Whorton finds his most invigorating challenge right in his own backyard as the staff coordinator for the Athens-Clarke County Poverty Initiative.

“Here in Clarke County, we came up with 10 recommendations to take on poverty,” Whorton says. Those recommendations include two experimental charter schools, greater access to quality child care and early learning opportunities for every child from zero to five years by 2010, and a number of other proposals equally as bold.

Whorton’s hope is that the Athens-Clarke County Poverty Initiative can become a model for other Georgia counties. A part of this effort and all the others in which he was involved centers on citizen involvement.

“If you engage the people and you’re genuine, and they know you’re not just running a game on them, they’ll be bolder than politicians,” he says.

Forty years after being inspired to public service by his mentor, Whorton still can recite the words of the Oklahoma City manager who changed his life’s course: “He told me, ‘If you really want to make a difference in this world, you can do it in local government because it’s the only government where you can do something and see the consequences of it almost immediately.’”

Whorton says he carries those sentiments with him into the UGA classroom where he teaches a course in public administration and policy that includes linking his students up with city managers and the Georgia Municipal Association so they can “work on real world problems.” That, he says, is a little payback for a career well lived. “If I can encourage students to see the wisdom of a career in local government, then that will mean a lot to me.” – EL

Evelyn Turner Pugh

Mayor Pro Tem


Few city council members have the chance to change national policy, but Columbus’ Evelyn Turner Pugh seems to find opportunities that others might miss.

During the Clinton Administration, Pugh was chairing a public safety committee for the National League of Cities when she scheduled a short meeting with then Attorney General Janet Reno. The meeting stretched to more than two hours as Pugh pled her case for giving local law enforcement more flexibility in the use of grants from the federally funded Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a crime-fighting program.

Reno agreed with Pugh’s arguments and later the COPS program was altered to give local police more latitude in applying the funds, much to the delight of law officers everywhere.

The event, documented in her nomination, was, Pugh says, born of a lifetime commitment for improving neighborhoods by using government as an agent for change.

“I do have a passion for neighborhood development,” she says. “I figure if we can bring back up those neighborhoods we have allowed to go down, then that neighborhood becomes an asset to the whole community.”

Pugh, who went on to become a SunTrust Bank vice president, was knee deep in local politics by the time she received her high school diploma. In 1968, she went door-to-door in her neighborhood handing out campaign literature for a candidate seeking a city council seat, the same seat she first won in 1988 and still holds.

“I have always been connected to my neighborhood and very involved in a lot of community projects, especially those that were helping the underserved,” she says. Testament to such a commitment is Pugh’s long volunteer service to education, the arts, healthcare and especially adequate housing.

As chair of what’s now known as Columbus’ Neighborhood Works, Pugh has used her banking expertise and connections to improve housing opportunities in declining areas. “That effort required the buy-in from the [banking] CEOs, and we got that,” she says. “A lot of the banks here went into partnership with Neighborhood Works to come up with different programs. I have a passion for helping people who don’t know they have an avenue open to them. To see the conditions of poverty some people live in, whether buying or renting, was just deplorable.”

Pugh’s long career in public service and devotion to what she calls “volunteer activism” was born when she was a student, during long conversations with her uncle, a high school government teacher. “My inspiration for public service came from him,” she says. “We spent hours talking about how government works and how it can be used to improve the lives of the poor. Since then I have always wanted to give back to this community.”

Pugh continues to serve on local, state and national committees seeking to improve local government services, but still keeps in mind the wellspring of her career in public service. “It all begins in the neighborhood,” she says. “That’s where every community begins.” – EL

Sam Olens


Cobb County Commission

A commute from Cobb County to Fulton County was once a trip into hostile territory. Roads narrowed, buses stopped just beyond the county line and commuters fumed.

Cobb County Commission Chairman Sam Olens knew he had to break the impasse between the counties. A lawyer by training and a mediator at heart, Olens reached beyond the petty bickering of the past to forge solutions. For example, he pushed for a “pilot” program that would allow MARTA buses to link with Cobb County Transit at Cumberland Mall.

Sure, Cobb voters had soundly rejected MARTA some 40 years before, but this was a new day. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin agreed and lent her support. Late last year, MARTA buses began rolling into the county, picking up commuters who had been walking more than a mile between bus stops.

To Olens, 50, a regional approach is the only one that makes sense – for Cobb County and the rest of Metro Atlanta. “We’re all interdependent,” he says. “This idea that we can be an island is ridiculous.”

Traffic congestion, water shortages, and pressures of growth – those are political minefields. Olens, who is only the second chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission to come from Cobb County, takes them on with a dogged, hands-on, yet collaborative style.

“He always approaches every task with an eye toward how we can reach a solution together, not ‘Here’s my plan, what do you think?’” says Bill Liginfelter, CEO of Wachovia Georgia, chair-elect of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, and chair of the chamber’s transportation committee.

Case in point: Olens moved beyond the age-old struggles of suburban-versus-urban, Democrat-versus-Repub-lican, roads-versus-trains, MARTA-versus-everyone else when he chaired a steering committee of other county, city and state leaders and representatives from MARTA, the state Department of Transportation and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

They set up a Transit Planning Board to create a regional transportation plan – and recommend a funding mechanism. Charles Krautler, director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, calls that “probably the biggest single accomplishment toward transit that we’ve had in this region since MARTA was created.”

Olens is personable and energetic, but he never planned to have a political career. He grew up in New Jersey, raised by his aunt and uncle after his mother died when he was 5 and his father died when he was 12. His aunt taught him to give back to the community. “Your value is not what you earn during your life or what you do for a living, it’s what effect have you had on mankind while you’re here,” she would say.

He settled in East Cobb after getting his law degree from Emory University, practiced law and was serving as president of the East Cobb Civic Association when he became increasingly frustrated by zoning decisions. So in 1998, he ran for county commission – and won. He ran for chairman in 2002.

Olens remains avid about civic involvement. He serves on more than 20 boards, including the Metro Atlanta YMCA, the Atlanta Opera, the Regional Commission on Homelessness and the Livable Communities Coalition.

These aren’t positions in name only. “He is fully committed. When he agrees to serve, he serves,” says Cobb County manager David Hankerson.

How does he do it? With “minimum” 60-hour work weeks, an ever-present PDA, and support from his wife and two children. His colleagues call him tireless. But he simply says, “If you want to make a difference, you have to put the time into it.” – MCM

Steve Szablewski


Columbia County

Steve Szablewski has several reputations following him.

To some he is the local government version of the corporate turnaround artist, the man who can improve the asset side of the ledger while trimming liabilities. To others, he is the political go-to guy who knows how to explain the value of passing tax referendums to the voters.

Szablewski earned both reputations as Columbia County administrator. Fresh from teaching a session on capital improvements planning and referendums sponsored by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, Szablewski modestly turns aside questions about his well-known acumen in both areas.

His boss, Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross, is less reluctant to comment. “One of Steve’s greatest achievements has been his success in passing SPLOST [Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax] and GO [General Obligation] Bond referendums,” wrote Cross in his Public Service Award nomination letter.

When Szablewski became the county’s first administrator in 1990, its government was in dire financial straits. “The fund balance had a negative balance, not a good thing,” he recalls. “They [county commissioners] were spending more money than they were bringing in. When they did their accounting, they were in the hole and had to borrow money to balance the budget.”

Using a turnaround plan devised by Szablewski, the county began to show improvement. Ledgers started to look more favorable and eventually became a set of books that Szablewski will discuss with pride. “We went from having no reserves in 1990 to the point now where we have [enough reserves to last] 100 operating days,” he says. “That is considered important by bond rating agencies when they evaluate the financial strength of local government.”

Great help in improving local government finances came from the county’s citizens, who have passed 10 SPLOST and GO referendums since he came aboard as county administrator 17 years ago. “We have built a justice center, detention facility, library, performing arts center, community centers, parks, fire stations, governments offices,” Szablewski says. “The key to this success is good capital improvements planning.”

Since becoming administrator, Szablewski has seen Columbia County grow from 66,000 to 103,000, creating the need for the improvements he listed. Such growth has also put pressure on delivering services and maintaining infrastructure. And, he says, “The quality of life people moved here to enjoy must be maintained. Programs to expand greenspace, develop town centers, parks and quality residential areas had to be initiated.”

Szablewski admits to an early and continuous interest in politics and public service, but strongly reacts to any suggestion that he may someday put his name on a ballot. “I don’t think I ever would run for office,” he says. “One of the tenets of being a professional manager is the line between appointed office and elected office. You serve at the pleasure of the elected officials and that’s the way I like it.” – EL

Billy Edwards

City Manager


As last summer began, and a long drought continued, Billy Edwards was eagerly anticipating a new source of water for his community’s thirsty lawns.

“We are developing an NPRL [Non-Potable Reuse Line] system,” says Edwards, for whom this summer marked the beginning of his 30th year on the job in Hinesville. “And I think we are the first community along the Georgia coast to require all new development to install the NPRL.”

The NPRL system takes treated wastewater and sends it to subdivisions and golf courses for use as irrigation. A new Hinesville city ordinance will require all new housing developments to install the NPRL infrastructure to carry the treated water.

The NPRL system policy was created by Edwards to solve a sticky problem: disposing of treated wastewater in the absence of a major stream or river big enough to carry it. The end result is a wastewater treatment plant capable of handling the demands of a growing population while getting a little needed water for Hinesville’s grass and petunias, yet another example of how the city has become known for solving two problems with one act.

Several years ago, Hinesville and Edwards attracted nationwide attention when the city installed a fire station beneath the local 2.5 million-gallon water tower, the only combination of its kind in the state. The two-in-one site saved the city the cost of buying land and has become a kind of tourist attraction.

Edwards is a homegrown city manager, having graduated from the local high school. But when he left for college it wasn’t to study for managing a municipal government. “When I went off to college I wanted to be an architect,” he recalls. “That is, until I was introduced to the world of calculus.”

Looking around for another major, he settled on public administration and in his junior year landed an internship in the Hinesville city administrator’s office. “That’s where I really fell in love with the idea of public service,” he says.

As an intern, Edwards worked among people he knew growing up in Hinesville. When the city manager left the same year Edwards graduated from college, he applied for the job – admittedly with the exaggerated confidence only youth can provide. “I had done the internship and I was from Hinesville, and I was a tested commodity,” he says. “And I offered myself at a fairly low wage because I didn’t have a job.”

The city council decided to try a little home cooking and hired Edwards as assistant city clerk on a six-month trial basis. At the end of the test period he was given the job of city administrator. “Hinesville was a town of only about seven or eight thousand people when I took the job in 1978,” Edwards says. “Now it is about 35,000 people.”

In his nearly 30 years of public service, first as the city administrator and today as city manager – the title changed as the job expanded – Edwards has created focus groups for planning, finance management and service delivery, efforts that created several new and improved city departments. He also has developed a downtown redevelopment master plan. Edwards deflects the focus on his lengthy list of accomplishments, instead citing his own list. “I have been really blessed to have such good people to work for and with,” he says. “I guess you could say I grew up with this city.” – EL

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