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April 12, 2004
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The H.R. Doctor Is In

Two-Timing in Gulf County

The HR Doctor recently returned from a pleasant visit to Gulf County, Fla., under the auspices of the Small County Technical Assistance Program of NACo’s partner, the Florida Association of Counties.

Most counties, cities, or school boards, for that matter, are small jurisdictions. They are not Los Angeles County, Cook County, New York City or Miami-Dade County. They look a lot more like Gulf County in size and organization, if not in geography.

Gulf County, like thousands of others in the United States, is a small county with fewer than 25,000 residents and under 200 county employees. The size may be small but the needs for help, support, and a knowledgeable, ethical, and hardworking staff is every bit as important there as it is in a giant public agency.

The Florida Association of Counties, led by Mary Kay Carisco, and its affiliated Foundation and Technical Support programs, led by Vivian Zaricki and Jim Parrish, represent a great tool for the smaller agencies to get the help they need under circumstances they can afford.

In the case of Gulf County, County Administrator Don Butler struggles daily to meet the needs of a growing population, to balance growth with preserving the count’s lifestyle, beaches and forests while looking for ways to meet growing infrastructure and economic development needs. Sound familiar? Of course it does. How can the county afford more sheriff’s deputies, improve roads, meet court costs, human service needs, planning capability, etc., etc?

Close and collaborative relationships with city governments, school boards, and the state and federal governments, as well as private-sector and nonprofit organizations combine to help elected officials see policy options. This situation also unifies public agencies no matter how big the jurisdiction.

The immediate goal over the course of two workshops was to assist with supervisory and management development and to help the elected officials focus on their policy-making roles rather than succumbing to the temptation to micro-manage. However, an underlying goal was to demonstrate support, on behalf of the Florida Association of Counties, for effective, ethical and innovative administration.

Upon arrival in Gulf County, the hotel clerk went out of his way to politely tell me that I was on Eastern Standard Time. Frankly, despite staying in many hotels over the years, this was the first time anyone had pointed out the time zone I was in. I initially thought this was very odd, but came to find out that Gulf County has two time zones, which split the county. Part of the county is on Eastern Standard Time. Another part of the county is an hour earlier on Central Standard Time.

This presents public administration with some unique challenges. For one thing, even Microsoft Outlook, which millions of us use to regulate our lives by keeping our calendars, is unable to cope with the situation. It isn’t enough to arrange a staff meeting at 10 a.m. It becomes necessary to say "That’s 10 a.m. ‘your’ time!" or "Was that 10 a.m. ‘my’ time?"

Imagine the amazing public service that could be rendered by paramedics or sheriff’s deputies when they respond to an emergency call and arrive nearly one hour before the problem ever occurred in the first place! Talk about an amazing response time!

On the other hand, think of how confusing it is to receive a call involving a possible heart attack only to arrive nearly an hour after the call was first received? In these conditions, the need for staff members to write and speak very, very clearly becomes even more important. Staff needs to be exceptionally careful when deadlines are involved É to pay taxes or fees, to record documents, to apply for a job, etc. The hotel clerk was providing excellent customer service by making sure I knew what time it was.

While every public agency has something unique going for it, I must say that the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico as well as the warm hospitality and friendly people more than made up for the fact that Gulf County lacks a giant shopping mall. Friendly, caring staff members, such as Denise Manuel, who is a one-person Human Resources Department, are common to public agencies all over the country.

Even though it is easy to get two-timed in Gulf County, it is also easy to look back at a pleasant visit with wonderful people and the hope that the assistance provided helped this small county see a big picture.

Best wishes no matter what zone you are in!

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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