Leading in Crisis: Listen to the Professionals

May 14, 2020

Deke Copenhaver

Leadership Focus is written by Deke Copenhaver, Principal with Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.
During my time in office I had a standing policy when voting to break a tie on the Augusta-Richmond County Commission to always vote in favor of the staff recommendation. My reasoning in doing so was twofold. First, I valued the input of paid, professional staff members who had extensive training in their areas of expertise which I did not. Second, I believed that this policy helped take the politics out of my decision-making process. I am not so naïve as to believe that politics can be removed from the process when it comes to local governments making decisions. However, I firmly believe that in the current situation we find ourselves it is now more important than ever for local elected officials to listen to the experts.

As a past board member of the Georgia Municipal Association, I have been extremely encouraged with the organization’s response to the global pandemic as well as that of other organizations advocating on behalf of local government. As has always been the case, GMA’s guidance and direction has been sound, fact based and has served no partisan political agenda. The organization has remained steadfast in providing calm, composed leadership for cities throughout Georgia during the crisis when this type of leadership is needed the most. This has underscored for me what a vital role GMA plays for our state and why I remain such a strong supporter of their efforts.

While serving as mayor I participated in confronting numerous crisis situations but admittedly none of this scope and magnitude. Our current set of circumstances is presenting local governments everywhere with a challenge the likes of which we've never seen. The full economic impact of the crisis on city revenue streams remains to be seen, but undoubtedly will be felt for years to come. Given the gravity of the situation we are currently facing, the decisions made on behalf of the citizens served by our state’s local governments are now more difficult, impactful and important than ever before.

As this global event has unfolded I’ve considered a local example of how our city’s finances could be impacted during these uncertain times. In 2012, the Augusta region was one of only three in the state to approve the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (T-SPLOST). The passage has allowed for significant improvements to our local transportation infrastructure to accommodate substantial economic growth. However, given the current economic situation voter’s willingness to approve the new package and the extension of the penny sales tax on a June 9th ballot is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately predict. Exacerbating the issue is the inability of local governments to educate voters on any given issue due to a lack of public meetings and a media landscape consumed by the coronavirus.

The situation I’ve outlined above reflecting the difficulty of governing in the midst of an ongoing crisis is just one example of the uncertainty facing local governments throughout our state. That being said, I’ve long been a strong proponent of the positive impact good governance can have at the local level in our hyper-partisan political landscape.

The ability for local elected officials to make sound decisions today with an eye to the future is undoubtedly enhanced by the work of organizations like GMA that are monitoring the situation and forming policy positions in real-time. The importance of local officials leaning on professional organizations for guidance and support during these unprecedented times cannot be overstated.

As we move through and emerge from our current situation, I would highly encourage local elected officials throughout the state to listen to the professionals before making any major decisions.

Thank you to each of you for serving your communities at this critical juncture in our nation’s history.

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