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Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield attended the grand opening of fire station. Walker County hosted an open house for its new fire station in Flintstone on July 14, 2017.
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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 4/25/17. Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield speaks during his first State of the County address at the Walker County Civic Center on Tuesday, April 25, 2017.

LaFAYETTE, Ga. — When Shannon Whitfield campaigned to be Walker County's commissioner in 2016, he promised to bring the community and government together.

In particular, he had a vision: Three advisory teams of residents, tackling three different issues. The teams would meet once a month, with a secretary recording meeting minutes. The teams would be liaisons to the public.

"It will be known who these people are," Whitfield said at a campaign event in May 2016. "And you'll be able to come in and ask them questions and have dialogue with them."

But on the one-year anniversary of Whitfield taking office, here is where that promise stands: One team met once in June. The meeting was not advertised to the public. Nobody took meeting minutes. Whitfield declined to say who attended.

Still, the commissioner said last week, he will improve on that area in 2018. A single advisory team will meet four times, beginning in January. He will release the names of the advisers. And while he said last June's meeting was closed to the public so advisers could "speak openly and honestly," he promises that someone will take minutes going forward.

Reflecting on his first year in office, Whitfield said his unfulfilled promise is a good example of just how hard the job can be. In a county of 67,000, he sits in a rare seat, a single elected official controlling the entire local government.

And for all his confidence, the challenge of a sole commissioner hit him as soon as he walked into the office on Jan. 1, 2017. His advisory teams were going to help steer the county forward, but Whitfield said he was afraid the boat might sink.

"We spent a lot of time with fire drills and dealing with problems," he said. "We haven't had the time resource to be looking forward. We're still cleaning up over our shoulder."

Running a campaign of fiscal restraint in a county with $70 million of debt, Whitfield came to office with overwhelming support. He defeated Bebe Heiskell, a 16-year incumbent, with 73 percent of the vote in November 2016.

On his first day in office, he said, the county's financial officer, Greg McConnell, told him the local government had $800,000 in the bank. Meanwhile, a stack of unpaid bills sat on his new desk, about 6 inches thick. The bills totaled $3.5 million.

"Things were much worse than I had anticipated," Whitfield said. " We had a crisis."

He also found that employee files were out of compliance with state and federal laws. He said there were no applications or performance reviews on file. Different departments maintained their own rules, deciding how much sick time employees had, as well as when they take vacation days. They didn't keep tax withholding forms or immigration documentation.

Whitfield hired a new human resources manager. He also lobbied for short-term loans, securing $4 million his second week in office and another $3.5 million last summer. Difficult decisions followed.

He raised property taxes by 50-70 percent this fall, depending on which part of the county residents live. At the same time, he denied some department heads' funding requests. Court Clerk Carter Brown accused Whitfield of breaking the law during a public budget hearing, though he didn't respond to multiple Times Free Press inquiries about what specifically Whitfield did wrong.

Whitfield also feuded with his former campaign manager, Bobby Teems. Whitfield said Teems was "bitter" and wanted a job with the county. Teems said Whitfield was too obsessed with numbers and didn't build relationships.

Case in point? The lack of advisory meetings.

"I did not think in a million years he would campaign the way he did," Teems said. "Talking about those boards, and then he did nothing. Hell, I never thought that."

Teems and Whitfield began working together in November 2015, before Whitfield announced he would challenge Heiskell. Immediately, Teems said, Whitfield told him he would round up a group of advisers to meet with him monthly.

Teems and another campaign member, Mike Cameron, believed that was a response to the unpopularity of the sole commissioner form of government. (In May 2016, 75 percent of voters said in a non-binding referendum that they wanted to change to a board of commissioners.)

But after the election, Teems and Cameron didn't hear anything about advisory meetings. Both said other members of the community asked them what happened. They didn't have an answer.

Cameron said former Commissioner Buddy Chapman and Wendy's franchisee Jim Patton both were supposed to be on an advisory team. While both said they still support Whitfield and are not bitter, Patton and Chapman told the Times Free Press that Whitfield has not solicited their advice in his first year. Patton said he hasn't heard from Whitfield since election night.

"Shannon wants to do everything himself and control everything himself," Cameron said. "It closes people off from the government. He's had a honeymoon period, and we're letting him do some things."

In addition to meeting with advisers more this year, Whitfield said he hopes to settle a debt with Erlanger Health System that sits at about $9 million, a holdover from the Heiskell era.

Hospital CEO Kevin Spiegel said in August he would accept payment of $8.7 million if Whitfield could make it immediately; the commissioner countered with an offer of $7.5 million over three years. The standstill now sits in U.S. District Court, where a federal judge could allow Erlanger to impose a new tax on county residents.

Whitfield also hopes the county can land some new manufacturing business this year, and he said the development authority will try to lure someone to lease Mountain Cove Farms, the county-owned resort in Kensington that has cost the local government millions since Heiskell bought it in 2008.

Whitfield is also proud of a couple of changes to county operations in the first year. He moved his commissioner's meetings from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. so more people could attend. The county also released a line-item budget this year, compared to the two-page document Heiskell used to release.

Though there is no official audit on it yet, he said the county's landfill is on track to lose $100,000-$200,000 this year, an improvement of about 70 percent compared to the prior year. He said the county's litter detail has picked up 115,000 pounds of trash in 2017, and codes enforcement personnel closed 462 cases of homes that were out of compliance. He said the previous administration did not track those figures.

It's hard to know how popular Whitfield is with county residents one year into the job, but he believes a vote two months ago provides a solid litmus test. After a steep property tax hike, he lobbied the county to introduce a 1 percent sales tax that would fund new transportation projects. The tax passed with 70 percent of the vote.

"I feel like we've accomplished a lot," Whitfield said after a commissioner's meeting Thursday.

"Not bad for basically restarting the government," said his spokesman, Joe Legge.

"Yeah," Whitfield said. "Picking up the government off the side of the road."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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