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March 23, 2018 | Spotlight

UGA trains South Georgia’s newest mayors and city council members for government roles

Pictured, l-r: Douglas City Manager Terrell Jacobs and Douglas City Commissioner of Ward 1 Edwin Taylor

Writer: Jana Wiggins

Pictured, l-r: Douglas City Manager Terrell Jacobs and Douglas City Commissioner of Ward 1 Edwin Taylor

Within four short days in June 2017, Edwin Taylor became a Douglas city commissioner in a special election, was sworn into office and was on the road to Savannah for training to learn how to do his job for the people of Ward 1.

That training for Georgia’s new mayors and city council members was the first of three presented by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government and the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) that Taylor has taken advantage of in the nine months since he was elected. Most recently, he joined more than 200 of his peers from South Georgia at the Newly Elected Officials Institute March 8-9 at the UGA Tifton Campus.

This event has introduced incoming city leaders to best practices in local governance since 1984. Over two days, mayors and councilmembers study policy-making, finance and related topics to better understand city government and fulfill the state’s six-hour training requirement for new officeholders.

UGA is one of the few universities in the nation and the only one in the state of Georgia to offer this type of training for local officials. More than 470 new municipal policymakers have attended one of two events in Athens and Tifton so far in 2018.

“I started training immediately so that I could represent the people that I was going to serve…so when they came to me with issues, I would know how to address those issues,” said Taylor. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into [by running for office]. I used to talk about politics, but now I'm on this side and it is totally different.”

Taylor, a 62-year-old native of Douglas and Coffee County, added elected official to his resume on top of his full-time job at the Walmart Distribution Center, a position he has held for more than 28 years. His foray into politics came at the urging of his late mother, his 94-year-old father, and the previous city commissioner of Ward 1, Johnnie Lee Roper, who passed away in March 2017 while in his seventh term.

“I’m one of three brothers, and my dad and my mom always told us sons, ‘We want y’all to be something in life.’ And my dad said to me, ‘Son, as much as you do for the city of Douglas, why don’t you run for office?’”

The third voice in Taylor’s ear, then ailing Commissioner Roper, asked him to promise to run for his seat if he did not survive his seventh term in office. “He said to me, ‘I want you to be willing to step up to the plate and represent me as the commissioner of Ward 1.’” Taylor did just that, winning in a landslide victory with 86 percent of the vote during June’s special election.

Douglas City Manager Terrell Jacobs says he’s seen the benefits of the UGA and GMA Newly Elected Officials Institute training for the new mayors and city council members he has served with in his 25 years in local and regional government, 11 of those in Douglas. And he believes Taylor will learn what he needs to know to lead effectively.

“These types of trainings are crucial for our elected officials,” said Jacobs. “Each and every time there's an opportunity for them to go gain new insights, they need to go.”

Jacobs also taught the City Government 101 course at the Athens and Tifton trainings this year. His class covers the roles and responsibilities of elected officials related to personnel management.

“We don't make products. We provide services. So the human aspect, the personnel aspect, is probably the biggest challenge that we face in local government in trying to manage our employees,” Jacobs said. “Hopefully, we can get them to be more effective and efficient in their jobs. And trying to help elected officials understand their role in that is the critical part.”

As for his charge to Taylor and his fellow newly elected peers, Jacobs says, “What I always start off my class with is this. Now that you have gotten the will of the people and they have voted you in…don't let the position take away from who you are and the good you're trying to do. Don't let it overcome and morph you into something that's not going to be productive for your community.”

Taylor has taken his city manager’s advice, his training and his new responsibilities to heart.

“I’m here to serve the citizens of Ward 1…and not only Ward 1, but the whole city of Douglas,” he said. “Because if I can help someone along life’s way, then my life won’t have been in vain.”

And if you’re looking for Commissioner Taylor on his one weekday off from Walmart, you can find him at Douglas City Hall. He spends his free Mondays rotating among the finance, public works, utilities, public safety and human resources departments picking up the finer points of local operations from the city employees he serves.