Recently, a friend asked me the question “What do you do?”. As any good Southerner knows, they meant “What is it that you do for a living?” or the simplified version “What is your job?”. “Southernspeak”, a phrase I’ll coin here for this article, is basically a linguistic form or style of speech common to the Deep South of the United States. It pretty much guarantees that two Southerners having a conversation with each other in the same room will be able to fully understand one another while also ensuring that anyone in the room who is not a Southerner will be perplexed and confused about what is being said.
The “What do you do?” question is one that I get a lot. It’s not always easy to define what being a County Administrator is, much less explain what all it involves. A doctor doesn’t have to explain what being a doctor is. A firefighter usually only has to explain once to a group of school children what they do and the child will remember it the rest of their lives. In the part of the country where I live, a taxidermist doesn’t even have to go into detail.
My day pretty much is divided up into three parts: morning, work and evening. Not much happens in the morning other than getting ready for work. A lot more happens in the evening during the time of getting over work. This is, more or less, a typical day for me though and sometimes they are smooth and sometimes they feel like you’re riding on four flat tires. To answer the question of “what do I do?”, here is a snapshot of one day in my life.
6:01 AM. My day begins when I wake up with Don Earnhart. Of course, Don is the local radio station owner so a lot of people wake up with Don. His wife Suzanne doesn’t seem to mind. Why 6:01 you might ask? Because my alarm clock’s snooze button works in 9 minute increments. I don’t know who thought that up or why but it seems to be common and since I like to hit the snooze button at least once, 6:01 allows me the extra nine minutes of sleep that I want and then I can get up precisely at 6:10. Whether I do or not depends on whether there is music or a good story on the radio. It almost invariably ends up being 6:19 when I finally get out of the bed.
6:19 AM. The first order of business is to get the boy up. The boy, who is 8 and going on 9 very much enjoys his sleep…he’s not not a morning person and he is very consistent about that. For example, most boys leap out of bed on Christmas morning and drag us to the Christmas tree. In our family, my wife and I get up, get a shower, have our coffee and start breakfast before going and dragging him out of the bed to see what Santa brought him. Usually the only way to get him up and get him dressed is if I promise him that if he hurries, he can lay back down on our bed for another ten minutes. He does this and goes promptly back into a deep sleep.
7:00 AM. After getting through all the morning routines, which includes feeding the cat, walking the dog and feeding him and at least two trips back into the house to get something I forgot, I am usually sitting in the drive thru of the local McDonalds waiting on my coffee and my sausage-egg McMuffin. I rarely eat lunch so breakfast is a necessity and coffee helps sustain life. I usually have time to read at least two articles on my iPad from the New York Times as the line winds its way around the building. Because I am consistent, I frequently can pull up to the speaker and say “Good Morning” and they’ll just say “$4.06, drive around”. I know, its pretty sad when McDonalds knows your order. Every now and then I’ll order a chicken biscuit just to shake things up. Usually when I do, they just put the usual in the bag anyway.
This morning, the drive thru is running smoothly, they were taking debit cards (some days they do, some they don’t) and they weren’t out of large coffee cups so the wait wasn’t long. If there is a serious problem at McDonalds such as being out of coffee (rare) or the place has a fire and the fire truck has to come (less rare), I’ll usually post something to Facebook from my iPhone to let others know they need to make alternate plans and I head two buildings over to the Burger King (which is never equipped for the breakfast rush that only seems to come when McDonalds has a serious malfunction). Burger King has Seattle’s Best coffee which is owned by Starbucks (good) but they don’t put the cream and sugar in the coffee like McDonald’s does (bad) so I have to wait until I get to work to start on my coffee.
7:10 AM. I arrive at work and head to my office. While eating my breakfast, I check my email, respond to a request from another county who needs an RFP or “Request for Proposal” that I just happen to have. The phone rings and since the office doesn’t open for another 40 minutes, the call has worked its way from the reception desk all the way back to my office. The caller wants to know about Federal aid and after deciphering what the problem is, I determine that he really needs to call the State and give him the number, reminding them that they probably won’t answer until after 8:00 AM so he may need to wait. I use the rest of my quiet time to finish checking emails, go over my schedule for they day and write a short news release about an upcoming meeting.
8:00 AM. In the quiet, I can hear the sounds of doors opening and closing as the employees are arriving at work. Through the ventilation system, I can tell that several are getting coffee in the break room and that someone is invariably using a speakerphone in their office that everyone in the building can hear. This particular morning I have an interview scheduled with a candidate for a job so I am going through various parts of the applicant’s resume and qualifications, gauging strong and weak points and making a list of questions that will help me identify the suitability of the candidate. Three phone calls. One is about a road that needs paving but it turns out the road is privately owned so there isn’t anything we can do about it right now. Two of them are routine business calls but between the three calls, about 35 minutes of the hour have been eaten up.
9:00 AM. Out of coffee. An email comes in about one of the bills working its way through the legislature that, if passed, will allow wireless phone providers to put cellular towers where they want to regardless of the local government’s position or zoning. While I certainly agree that cellular towers are a necessity and a present day reality, I am not in agreement that just because their companies have a powerful lobbying force that the voice of the people, their local elected officials, can have their power to represent their constituents removed from them by the state. The counties have a lobby as well to help get their position across but in the face of billion dollar corporations, ours is a tiny voice that can easily be overlooked. Meanwhile, two more calls come in with another 15 or so minutes consumed.
10:00 AM. Coffee replenished. Back to work on the resumes. A text message comes in on my iPhone from an attorney handling a case for us. He needs some information and I provide him with which county employee he can get it from and he updates me on a pending case. When I finish and exit out, I see the text message I got from my eight year old the previous day. He had been spending the night at a friend’s house and got “a little bit homesick”. We went back and forth a bit and then I called him and talked to him until he felt better. I plan to keep his message to remind me of this time when he is still little and needs his Daddy. I know those days will soon be in the past and it makes me sad when I think about that.
A department head drops in with a request for a part-time employee to do some limited duration work. Since the position is not funded in the budget currently but the work that would be performed by the employee is critical to a certain process going on in the department, I tell him that I will have to research whether funding can be pulled from another area. This is where it becomes a balancing act. The position needed will ensure a project gets completed in a timely manner and without the position, the project will be delayed which in the end could potentially cost more than the amount needed to secure a temp. Pay now or pay later becomes the question.
11:00 AM. Time for the interview. During the hourlong session, I get about six emails and two phone calls. After the interview, a department head calls to tell me about a broken door that could cause a security issue. I find the head of the maintenance department and send him to fix the door. Meanwhile, our insurance broker arrives to discuss the impact of healthcare reform on our county.
12:15 PM. I meet with the insurance broker and the Chairman of my board to discuss our insurance program and Federal healthcare reform, known by many as “Obamacare”. Much to my dismay, I learned that the new healthcare reform program is going to cost the County an additional $60,000 in what basically amounts to new taxes and that none of our 212 employees will see any benefit from it at all. All I can think about is $60,000 that could have funded two needed firefighters in next year’s budget. Or two automated defibrillators for our building. For a small county government, $60,000 is a lot of money.
1:30 PM. Lunch meeting, which I usually don’t do but since there are business matters to discuss, we head to Hunters, a local establishment that has been in business for a long time in various locations. Fried chicken, green beans and real mashed potatoes too. It’s going to be a long afternoon with an extra meal that I don’t really need as I’m trying to keep off the 70 pounds I shed two years ago.
2:30 PM. Thank God for my personal Keurig coffee maker at work. It’s the best money I ever spent. Time to catch up on emails. Fourteen are waiting in the inbox, plus I have to check the junk mail for strays that wind up there every day. Two are from the County Attorney with legal opinions on various matters. County governments have a range of issues going on at any given time and juggling is a necessary skill to keep all those balls in the air. Some of them require legal interpretation and safeguards against possible litigation.
The County Attorney is a County Administrator’s best friend at times and it is helpful when you have worked with the same one for many years because you learn not to take constructive criticism personally. Law has always fascinated me and when I look at an issue, I try to put on my “lawyer” hat and think the way an attorney does and it is satisfying when my County Attorney confirms my interpretation of a matter.
3:00 PM. I take a meeting with the Code Enforcement officer about a personnel matter, followed by a discussion about his current caseload and what issues he is dealing with. The code enforcement officer’s job is not an easy one. Most of the issues he deals with is making sure that county codes are followed and enforcing them…everything from dilapidated houses and unkept lawns to junked cars and illegal disposal of dangerous materials, all of which keeps the code enforcement officer busy. Because we are a small government and only have one officer to enforce code, most of his time is spent dealing with complaint issues…there just isn’t a lot of time for proactive policing of code violations. Still, I can see progress in this area taking place and a few others have noticed too.
3:30 PM. I find myself picking up a policy revision I’ve been working on that will update our vacation and sick leave policies. Most of the revisions are tweaks but a few substantive changes will hopefully make things easier for the employees once the transitionary period is overcome. Between typing, I take a call from the chairman of my board and another of my commissioners. Commissioners, in addition to being local level legislators and policymakers are frequently the conduit of information about things the public have concerns about…roads that need scraping or fixing, site attendant issues at the solid waste sites and development issues are frequent topics of discussion but there are a lot more.
Citizen complaints come in directly too. One of the earlier calls in the day was from a citizen who complained about a firefighter he saw somewhere that he didn’t think he should be there on duty. It turned out the firefighter was from another county and had stopped in the parts store on his way home from work. Some are not as easy to explain and some are not easy to correct but I usually find a solution and if I can’t, I have a network of other County Administrators I can turn to for experienced answers.
4:30 PM. It’s time to check the mailbox and see what has come in for the day. I’m convinced that the reasons our rain forests are disappearing at such an alarming rate is directly related to the incredible amount of junk mail we get. My box is full of brochures and flyers from vendors of all sorts, each one trying to get a piece of the public funding pie. The empty trash can of earlier that morning is now a testament to the fact that junk mail is what keeps the U.S. Postal Service in business. There are, however, a few manilla envelopes that aren’t junk and which require my attention so I spend the rest of the time at work going through the legitimate mail, comment where necessary and forward them on to the appropriate department head to be handled.
5:15 PM. It’s time to go home. I enjoy going to work every day but after 10 hours of work, 16 phone calls, a bazillion emails, four unscheduled office vists, one lunch and a partridge in a pear tree, I’m ready to leave the office behind. The drive home is short, only two and a half miles but its productive as I can use that time to return a call from someone I missed earlier.
5:30 PM. My tireless son, who I am convinced is visited by someone in the middle of the night to inject him with “Red Bull”, wants to play catch. Since I can’t throw a baseball with any degree of accuracy, we developed our system using a tennis ball. Tennis was about the only sport I was ever any good at and that I enjoyed playing; his favorite sport is baseball so I serve the tennis ball to him (which is basically the same size as a baseball) and he runs and catches the ball and throws it back to me, allowing me to practice my return. The benefits to this method is that I can hit the ball pretty much anywhere I want it to go-high up for field catches, off the driveway for ground balls and so forth. Another benefit is if he misses the catch or I miss his throw, the tennis ball is soft and doesn’t damage anything.
6:30 PM. My wife has a City Council meeting so we are left at home to our own devices. My son decides he wants a pizza for dinner from the freezer and I decide to have a bowl of Special K since I’m not hungry and had lunch. After dinner, we settle down for television. Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Sponge Bob Squarepants. Believe me, I know. It’s his favorite cartoon and they run many each night on TV.
9:00 PM. Time for my son to go to bed. This is an every-night routine with us. He has to go to bed and he doesn’t want to. He is a night owl, like his father, and would stay up all night if we let him. Getting him in bed is the first step. First, he wanted to stay up until his mother got home. Since she had texted me and told me she would be home shortly, I let him stay up a few extra minutes so he could say good night to her. Once he is in the bed, he will then get up about 10 minutes later to use the bathroom, then he will get up again about 15 minutes later and get a drink of water. I know because he comes to the den to report this each time he gets up. It’s almost comical at times the way he “checks in” with us before he does anything. I’m not going to argue about it because I know there will come a time soon where he won’t tell us anything and we’ll always be wondering what he’s up to. It’s just another aspect of his childhood that is here today and will be gone tomorrow. Like playing catch with a tennis ball.
10:00 PM. I realized that I had forgotten to watch “Dallas” the night before but fortunately, the trusty DVR took care of that and I can watch it now. I was a big fan of the show in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s when it first ran in prime time. I was very pleased when I found out that it was coming back to television last year and even more pleased that they didn’t goof it up. It’s better than it was back then, darker and more serious. I think both versions are reflective of the times they were shown in because we live in a darker, more troubled world in 2013 than we did in the 70’s.
It’s bittersweet in some ways because as I watch this episode, I know it is one of the last ones that veteran actor Larry Hagman will appear in. He died just a few months ago while they were still filming this season and only got to appear in the first half of it. There will never be another J.R. Ewing, although his son is doing his best to out-JR his father in the show.
12:30 AM. That’s about all I can handle for one day. At this hour, its getting hard for me to keep my eyes open and I’ve read the same page twice. I’ll walk the dog, check all the doors, give the cat a snack so he’ll settle down and head off to bed. I rarely ever get to bed before midnight unless I don’t feel well and frequently will stay up to 1:00 AM if I’m not too tired but tonight I’m ready for bed now. The good news is I usually go to sleep within minutes and can function on 5 hours of sleep without slowing down too much. The lights are off and sleep is not far away now.
I still say my prayers at bedtime, the way I was taught and raised. Sometimes I think I fall asleep in the middle of them but I know God already knows what I was going to say. Maybe He puts me to sleep to keep me from running on too long. He’s pretty busy and there are a lot of people calling for His attention. I thank Him for my day and my family and my health. I ask Him for help for those I know need it and to forgive me for all my shortcomings. I close my eyes and the next thing I know, Don is talking on the radio again.
Time to do it all over again.