Water Authority raises minimum wage, mandates masks in rise of coronavirus

Authority hires consultant for new leadership transition from ‘toxic culture’ in recent history


Liz Fabian

The Macon Water Authority has approved $1.6 million in renovations for its Second Street headquarters.

No Macon Water Authority employee will be making less than $15 per hour come next month.

Personnel committee chair Anissa Jones enthusiastically reported the  recommendation in Thursday afternoon’s meeting.

The salary adjustment affects less than 40 workers on the payroll, she said.

“The increase in budget to fund the change was less than $40,000 annually. The personnel committee unanimously recommends the salary adjustment for all active employees with hourly pay rates below $15 to be increased to a minimum hourly rate of $15 per hour,” Jones reported.

The hike goes into effect on Sept. 6 and coincides with the pay period to make a clean transition, according to Human Resources Director Christy Ellington.

The authority unanimously approved the wage increase nearly two weeks before the Macon-Bibb County Commission is poised to consider raising salaries for its workers to the same threshold by  2023.

Commissioners will not convene the Committee of the Whole next week due to the Georgia Municipal Association convention, so won’t decide until Aug. 17.

Interim Macon Water Authority executive director Ray Shell also announced the return of the mask mandate as the community experiences a rise in COVID-19 cases, including at the utility.

“Due to the increase of confirmed positive cases throughout the organization, we recommend reinstating the mask mandate,” Shell said.

Emails went out to all employees recommending heightened precautions to “alleviate issues,” he said.

The board’s meeting was once again held remotely by Zoom after they recently returned to in-person sessions at the headquarters on Second Street.

The authority also approved $1.6 million in planned renovations for that building but details were not announced in the afternoon meeting.

An internet glitch prevented the morning’s work session from being presented live on Facebook, as expected, to meet requirements for public meetings. As of Friday, posting of the recording was still in process.

Firm hired for leadership transition

Authority chairman Sam Hart raised concerns about hiring senior management advisor John Horton of Collier Brown & Co. to aid in the search for a new executive director and ease the transition from Tony Rojas, who recently retired.

“Do you think it might be inappropriate to have a coach for a person we haven’t identified yet?” Hart asked.

He worried the move could signal a lack of confidence in the search committee and new hire.

Authority member Valerie Wynn also suggested authority members themselves handle some of the tasks Horton outlined. She favored hiring Horton for a scaled-down list of functions and adding services, if necessary.

Bill Howell, who serves with Wynn on the county commission and water authority, lobbied for the entire $74,500 package, which he thought was fair.

“That’s a lot of money, but the last thing we need to do is mess up these things we’re working on,” Howell said. “Not only hiring, but getting the governance right and all that stuff.”

The authority also is revising its governing by-laws during this transition period.

They voted 4 to 3 to accept the contract with Hart, Wynn and Desmond Brown voting against it and Howell, Anissa Jones, Dwight Jones and Frank Patterson approving the full proposal.

According to Horton’s presentation, the Macon Water Authority’s recent history shows a “toxic culture” while facing challenges with COVID-19, customer service and sinking board credibility.

Those conditions created a “strategic inflection point” that prompted “early action steps”of retiring  Rojas, hiring a search firm and looking for a new leader, according to the presentation.

Horton’s “solution” begins with preparing the board to hold a town hall meeting with employees, something both Wynn and Hart thought could be handled on their own.

“To show solidarity among the board, we’ll get before the employees and say, ‘We’re here. We’re fighting. We’re moving forward looking for a new leader,'” Hart said.

Horton’s package includes helping with candidate interviews and conducting psychological, leadership and problem-solving assessments of the final candidate.

The firm will help the new director avoid the pitfalls many new executives find as they face steep learning curves and try too hard to impress before they master necessary skills.

Horton also will set up the framework and metrics for the authority to evaluate the new executive director’s performance going forward.

Myers McRae executive search and consulting is currently accepting applications for the position. The job listing encourages candidates to apply before Aug. 16 for the best consideration.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers government entities in Macon-Bibb County. Contact her at 478-301-2976 or [email protected] 

-The original version of this story misidentified MWA human resources director Christy Ellington as director of finance.