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What We Learned about the New Board was More Important than What We Learned about the Animal Shelter

Local media all made a mistake, me included. All that had to happen was to wait one additional meeting and the perspective would have been clearer.

There’s still a lot to be optimistic about with this board going forward. But the age-old trick that people fall for is to make a judgment call about others when the circumstances are perfect, when in fact a much clearer picture of their character is how they act when things are at their worst.

After the first meeting, the Chronicle editorial board wrote that the commission is a well-lighted room which I’m mostly sure was a compliment, Just Wright Citrus said the first meeting “was a darn good one” and even I scored the two commissioners with As while writing a glowing report.

My intent now is not to redefine the commission’s direction. They are going to be fine. The Chronicle’s proverbial room should stay bright. This Tuesday’s meeting, though, was the first time the new board got sucker punched and it can be used as a learning experience.

The engineering firm hired to oversee the construction of the new animal shelter gave a long anticipated presentation because it would unveil the first look at the new structure. What the commission wasn’t expecting was the brand new price tag of $22 million.

To call this the base price is a little misleading. At one point, the representatives from the firm did say that removing all the commission’s input for things like a catio (patio for social cats) would reduce costs to about $14 million. Some of these requests, including the catio, were required to use donor funds to help offset the cost however.

The commission’s response was perhaps a proper representation of what the public’s would be. There was surprise, confusion and anger. But the anger bordered on indignation and that’s where the learning experience comes into play.

Understanding why the board needs to learn from the meeting starts with a review of how we got here. By state law, the county chose the firm through a request for qualification rather than a request for (bid) proposal. This means the firm was chosen based on the strength of their resume without the cost as part of the equation. In fact, the firm’s fee was based on the $9 million budget even though they proposed a $22 million project.

This isn’t to defend them completely. Former county architect Thomas Williford accused the firm of taking a roughly 20% share of the overall budget, something that he said the industry standard would be in the single digits. The firm also has apparently not been communicating with the county at all for this to be a surprise.

Still, the board is elected to be the public face of our county to others outside of it as much as they are to be the voice of the people in it. Just as law enforcement must be aware of who is watching on every traffic stop or house call, so too is it the responsibility of the board to recognize others are watching. The longest tenured Commissioner Jeff Kinnard was the first to speak, immediately rejecting the proposal and later suggesting the firm should be fired - a bold suggestion after just one meeting with the firm.

One of the newest members Commissioner Diana Finegan at one point asked a question of the representatives which they could not answer prompting her to end the conversation by saying in frustration, “and you were the most qualified.”

The feelings are entirely understandable, but let’s put this into perspective. The previous county administrator, who had an undergraduate degree in building construction from Clemson and a masters in civil engineering from MIT, helped choose this firm.

We also have to keep in mind that we’re limited to the pool of applicants who choose to enter the process. How we treat them once they’re part of the process is going to go a long way in determining the quality of applicants we have going forward. The most qualified firms are going to be looking for counties they can trust to work with smoothly. Tuesday’s display fell short of that goal.

As a new dad, I don’t judge my parenting by when my daughter is smiling but rather when she is screaming her head off. I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded in keeping calm over feeling stressed. Those failures won’t define me as a parent.

This board likewise should be judged in bad times like Tuesday rather than the good times like the meeting before. Situations that could have been handled better shouldn’t define them, but they should learn from them.


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