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Commissioners bring insight home from Hawaii

By Justin Boron

Two Clayton County commissioners who attended a county government conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, have defended the value of their trip recently, saying it was an important leadership builder and information tool for legislative and community concerns.

The National Association of Counties hosted its annual conference this year on the tropical resort island almost 4,500 miles away from Jonesboro. The location drew questions of several governments in the region, said Jeremy Ratner, the spokesman for the Washington-based advocacy group.

Commissioners Wolé Ralph and Virginia Gray attended for Clayton County. Henry County chose not to send any of its officials because of the cost.

Ralph said the conference was a crucial part of building regional cooperation in metro Atlanta.

"As the challenges and opportunities of the Atlanta region become more complex, there is an increasing need to develop strong leaders," Ralph said in a news release. "The NACo conference is designed to better prepare a diverse group of county elected officials to work collaboratively on addressing local and national issues. The conference format provides a unique learning format through an intensive five-day conference that trains, empowers and supports leaders so they can lead effective counties."

Ralph said he attended seminars in budget planning, functional consolidation of government services, and President George W. Bush Administration's work initiatives.

"Consolidation has been talked about at great length in this county in and among various departments with anticipation of the Carl Vinson Study," he said. "For this reason, I wanted to gain a better understanding of national trends, models that work, how to determine feasibility and consolidations' advantages and disadvantages."

Gray, who has been involved with the association since 1997, said the conference helped with everything from grant funding and legislative issues to dealing with drug problems like methamphetamines.

"(The) workshops as well as training and workshops through (the Association County Commissioners of Georgia) have been invaluable in helping me address, establish, and implement actions and activities in my role as commissioner," she said.

Ratner said the decision to hold the conference in Hawaii received criticism mostly from areas east of the Mississippi River, where airfare would likely be more expensive than officials for West Coast governments.

He said the $415 registration and $180 to $190 per-night hotel rates were on par with past conferences and didn't have a noticeable effect on attendance.

"We had the same number of people come this year as previous years," he said.

Decisions on what county will host the conference are made well in advance. The one for Honolulu, he said, was made in 1998.

Other recent conferences were held in Phoenix, Maricopa Ariz. and Milwaukee County, Wis., Ratner said.