Old hand at the helm

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Sometimes the answer to your prayers is right under your nose, previously overlooked in the frenzy to find something better. Perhaps that’ll prove true in the Frankfort Plant Board’s decision to elevate interim General Manager Herbbie Bannister to permanent standing in the post.

Bannister, a 19-year veteran of the municipal utility who plans to retire after eight more years of service, was passed over in 2011 when board members chose Jim Smith, a private utility executive from Georgia. Smith came to Frankfort with visions of improving the Plant Board’s customer service – a worthy objective – but a year later the honeymoon ended and the board sent its new manager packing without announcing a reason. Because Smith’s firing was officially without cause, FPB had to pay him six months salary after he left.

This isn’t the first time city government and its electric/water/cable provider have come to rue key personnel selections. City Hall has gone through a dozen city managers, mostly from out of town. Interim managers, typically chosen from within the ranks or the community at large, have fared better, albeit for the short term. The accepted routine is to conduct a nationwide talent search. This has turned up some good city managers and some not so good.

Longtime Frankfort resident Fred Goins, the interim city manager chosen to succeed fired Anthony Massey, pleased City Commission members so well that they gave him the job for keeps. When he later returned to retired life, he left with high praise from political leaders, as have other interims before him.

Hiring locally, whenever possible, is a good idea. People who’ve lived and worked in the community are generally more in touch with the way things get done around here and instinctively know when to back off if they’re pushing too hard for change. This conservative community doesn’t like to be pressured.

Familiarity is no guarantee of harmony, however. Before Smith’s arrival, Warner Caines, a longtime Frankfort resident, served 37 years with the Plant Board, ultimately as general manager, before members asked him to leave in 2009. Exactly how this came about still hasn’t been explained. The Plant Board evidently prefers to fire general managers without saying why.

In Smith’s case, State Journal reporter Kevin Wheatley dug up some possible answers afterwards when his review of public records painted the dismissed administrator as a big spender who sometimes got enmeshed in dealings with former business associates without adhering to competitive bidding and procurement procedures. We trust Bannister has been around long enough to know you can’t keeping doing that sort of thing in a political town without having someone call your hand.

He also should know that Plant Board customers won’t tolerate their public utility acting like a private one, especially when big spending contributes to big rate increases. They’ll be following the progress of his efforts to consolidate the utility’s scattered facilities in one location, either on the 30-acre tract “bought” from the city for $1, or elsewhere.

The new manager is correct that a little more stability after three years of turmoil will be welcome. He shouldn’t bank on the calm lasting indefinitely, however.

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