Bolton: McDonald will do fine, if Richland County Council lets him

Associate EditorDecember 21, 2012 

Tony McDonald, interim administrator for Richland County, July 2

Tony McDonald, interim administrator for Richland County, July 2012

— NOW THAT Richland County Council has taken the rare step of voting unanimously to hire a new county administrator, the 11-member body must live up to that show of support.

That could be difficult for a group with members who like to meddle in day-to-day affairs that should be left to the administrator.

There’s no question that Tony McDonald can do the job. The 52-year-old South Carolina native grew up in Richland County government, beginning as a research analyst 27 years ago.

Obviously, he is intimately familiar with the inner workings of Richland’s government. He’s seen the county’s highs and lows. He knows where the land mines — and yes, the skeletons — are. His skills, institutional knowledge and calm demeanor will go a long way toward helping him effectively manage daily operations.

But as anyone who observes Richland County to any degree knows, it’s not all about Mr. McDonald’s ability or his commitment to serving the people of Richland County. He must also know how to dance — to the beat of the 11 political drums played by his bosses on County Council.

It appears that those drums were playing the same tune the day they hired Mr. McDonald. Richland’s council had not hired an administrator by a unanimous vote in 20 years.

But make no mistake: There are competing agendas on this council, and Mr. McDonald’s resolve will be tested.

Of course, he knows that. In his nearly 30 years on the job, he’s seen administrators come and go. He’s even served as interim administrator a couple of times, once for a year and a half back in the early ’90s. And prior to being chosen as permanent administrator earlier this month, he had served as interim since June.

During his first stint as interim administrator, Mr. McDonald opted not to pursue the permanent job and chose to return to the No. 2 spot instead. Was it that he didn’t feel he was ready for that level of responsibility, or was he turned off by the political whirlwinds that so often swirl around the administrator’s office, or both?

Now, years wiser and much closer to retirement, he has chosen to take the helm.

Council members paint a hopeful picture, saying things like “We can trust him to be fair and honest with us” and “He has the public interest at heart” and “The public, getting to know him, will like him.”

I hope they remember those superlatives when Mr. McDonald has to deliver not-so-pleasant news at budget time or recommends foregoing a pet project because it’s too risky or just a plain bad idea. I hope they remember their solid support when he doesn’t give in to pressure by one or two renegades looking out for themselves and a handful of constituents. While it’s certainly McDonald’s job to carry out the directives and policies of the council, it’s not his job to do special favors for individual, meddlesome council members outside of the direction of the council as a whole.

Unfortunately, some council members’ desire to have their way played a large part in creating the vacancy now filled by Mr. McDonald. Mr. Pope was a solid leader. He helped the county not only survive the worst recession in most of our lifetimes but thrive in comparison to many other governments. While many cities and counties were slashing services, cutting jobs and furloughing workers, Richland didn’t furlough or lay off anyone.

But, with much accomplished and so much more ahead, Mr. Pope walked away; he retired at age 48.

Ultimately, I believe he was worn down by the petty politics in county government, the baseless attacks and barbs leveled at him by a couple of council members and, of course, the overall dysfunction of this council. There were council members who resented that the former administrator wouldn’t do their bidding. Even worse, the council as a whole was horrendous at giving him clear direction about where the county should have been heading.

Mr. Pope was evaluated only twice in his roughly six years as administrator, and the second review was never fully completed. His predecessor, Carey McSwain, once went five years with little feedback.

Those men deserved better. So does Mr. McDonald. The council should give him regular annual evaluations as well as offer ongoing feedback so that he knows how he’s doing and what his priorities ought to be as the county’s day-to-day manager. Mr. McDonald is responsible for carrying out the council’s policies and directives as well as managing the delivery of basic services to residents. But how do you hold the unelected manager accountable when things go awry when the elected council for whom he works provides no real guidance?

Richland County Council made a wise decision in selecting Mr. McDonald. Its members should continue to walk in wisdom and give Mr. McDonald clear directives that help propel the county forward — and then get out of his way and let him do his job.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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