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Nash gives new hope to service delivery dispute

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Charlotte Nash knew it would happen.

More than a decade ago, she warned legislators that a new law forcing county and city governments to establish formal service delivery strategies could bring trouble.

"Once we were forced to reduce that to a contract, it was going to be about the formal document and not the informal cooperation," she said of the agencies working together for the public good. "It works just fine when everyone is giving and taking. But the very process of formalizing it puts the whole cooperative nature in jeopardy."

But with Nash leading as Gwinnett county administrator the first go-round, local leaders were able to forge a quick and easy solution.

Ten years later, when that initial service delivery was coming up for renewal, Nash was happily retired, and the mess she foretold became a reality. City turned against county and commissioner squabbled with councilman.

When the agreement expired in March 2009, the county sued its 15 cities, and after months of motions and a trial last year, officials are still waiting on a judge to pick a winner.

The waiting, though, has been rough, since all the agencies have lost qualified local government status. They have lost the right to win state grants and even to enforce the speed limit with radar guns.

Now Nash is back, replacing Chairman Charles Bannister, who resigned in scandal last year.

And somehow, officials have hope that the end to the yearslong dispute is in sight -- not by the ruling of a judge but by a renewed sense of compromise.

"Charlotte started building those relationships (with city leaders) before she even came into the office," said Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, who has acted as a spokesman for 14 of the 15 cities as chairman of the Gwinnett Municipal Association. "She's very approachable and a great listener. We've been able to talk frankly and really get the issues refined."

Tensions were tight last August when the fight finally came before Judge David Barrett for trial.

Current County Administrator Glenn Stephens said the depositions and cross examinations had mayors and commissioners on edge. "Attorneys aren't meant to be peacemakers," he said. Stephens ought to know; he is one.

"With the passing of time, the adrenaline slows down. I'm not saying anyone on either side was hot-headed, but a trial is a trial," he said. "With Charlotte coming in with her experience and the history, I think its respected inherently with the city folks. ... It's interesting to dialogue again and not come in from locked-in angles."

Even before the March special election, when Nash won the chairmanship, councilmen talked to her about the issue. "I think everyone would like to get it solved and get this behind us," Nash said.

While informal discussions have occurred, Nash said she does not yet have a consensus from the Board of Commissioners that she could offer to city officials. But she believes the staunch sides are being loosened.

"I recognize that compromise has to be part of the process for all sides," she said. "The whole idea about service delivery was to put cooperation among officials in a rational way. That needs to be our objective. ... Whatever the cost will be, that it's borne fairly."

Nash said her philosophy on the issues is not any different than what the county officials have believed for years, but her experience and knowledge of how Gwinnett's government came to be brings a new perspective.

"The difference I bring is the history, how things came to be between the county and the cities over time, which really doesn't reside on the county or on the city side," she said. "I tend to look at the whole county as one service area."

The difference between the conflict now and the first service delivery agreement, she said, comes down to money.

City leaders want their residents to pay less in county taxes, since they are receiving some services from the city. The issue is the biggest sticking point in cities with their own police departments.

"When we negotiated the first time, there was not a lot of focus on the money. It was a recognition of the informal working relationships we had," she said. "Perhaps the hard economic times had people concerned with how the money matched up."

The resolution will have an impact on taxpayers, and it will happen immediately, Nash explained, adding that she can't rule out a tax increase on residents of the unincorporated parts of Gwinnett if the city residents get a major cut.

"It's very complicated," she said, adding that the stakes are high for all involved and finding a solution that can be workable for the nearly 100 politicians involved will be difficult.

"Cooperation will be mentioned a lot," she said of the discussions, still in their infancy.

But at least, all sides agree, they are back at the table.