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1818Blog: An Interview with Charlotte Nash, Chairman, Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners.

John Dunn interviews Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash, on her transition to elected politician, the new Board of Commissioners, and Gwinnett's water issues.

“Help me to understand,” she requests in that Southern accent marking her, clearly, as a child of the Harbins area of Gwinnett County.  In fact, Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash traces her family’s roots, the Halls, back to a few short years after Gwinnett County was created from the Creek Indian session of 1818.  She married a local Dacula boy, Michael Nash, but she’s quick to point out he comes from the Nash family that wasn’t quite as well off as the ones centered around the Lilburn and Snellville areas; land developers and car dealership owners.

“Help me to understand” is Charlotte Nash’s best known maxim, a line she developed through 27 years of service as an employee of Gwinnett County.
It is a polite way of saying that something is a tall order, and maybe it is doable and maybe it is not. Charlotte Hall Nash is a graduate of Dacula High School and the University of Georgia, where she earned a BBA in accounting. “I didn’t like
accounting, especially, but I came to see it as a good foundation for other fields.” Most of her career at Gwinnett County, as it turns out, were accounting related, rising Director of Financial Services, Budget Director, Grants Manager, then to County Administrator. 

She’s been married to Michael for forty years, has two adult children and two grandchildren.

I worked with Charlotte during her final four years as County Administrator.
She was always there to ensure that new commissioners like me had all the information we needed to effectively do our jobs, directing county staff to instruct us at levels far exceeding that required by state law.  When she ran to fill the vacated Chairman seat in 2011, there were three other candidates, but she won this special election without a runoff.  Then, last year she ran unopposed and was elected to a full four-year term.  Few know Gwinnett County government like Charlotte Nash.

John Dunn: “Charlotte, how did your transition from bureaucrat to politician go?”

Charlotte Nash:  “The biggest challenge was going from administrator to policy maker.  As County Administrator it was usually a matter of tasking the staff with resolving an issue or implementing decisions.  As Chairman, I am the elected policy maker, who must focus on policy matters and stay back from directing staff on the minutiae of solving a problem.  It is a difficult balance sometimes, especially since I normally know the details fairly well.”

JD: “All Chairmen have their own styles.  When I served with then Chairman Wayne Hill, he generally did not avail himself to district matters, in return for our
support of his goals for Gwinnett County within the Atlanta region and the state.  What is your philosophy?”

CN: “Again, there is a question of balance.  As a general rule my hope is to have good working relationships with the district commissioners, and respect for their
involvement in their districts is important. I tend to stand off a bit and let them take the lead on district matters. Sometimes matters of practicality demand that I do get involved on that level, like after the vacancy in the District One post.  But sometimes I have to make the point that not everywhere in this county needs, say, an indoor aquatics center.  Since I am elected countywide, I see it as my
responsibility to focus attention on consistency across the county and what we
can afford overall.”

JD: “About those district commissioners – We have an almost entirely new Board of Commissioners.  How would you describe our new commissioners and your relationship to them?”

CN: “I feel good about the new Board.  [District One Commissioner] Jace Brooks has made a nice transition from his experience on the Suwanee City Council.  His background is finance.  It is interesting to see how he arrives at decisions.  He is very analytical.  He is a good guy. Jace, [District Three Commissioner] Tommy Hunter and I all attended new commissioner’s training together recently in Athens.  It was an excellent opportunity to get to know both of them.  Tommy comes from an old-time family from Gwinnett and Hall Counties.  He is an
engineer who has worked on county water and sewer issues.  [District Four] Commissioner John Heard is an architect and former legislator.  In my opinion John has made the transition from legislator to commissioner well.  I think he would tell you that the two elected positions are vastly different in responsibilities and expectations.  [District Two Commissioner] Lynette Howard brings her scientific background and grassroots sensibilities to the task nicely.  We have a very interesting mix of perspectives on our Board.  Our task is figuring out how to work with each other and disagree with as little strife as possible.”

At this point in the interview I had to make a choice on what to discuss with all the goings on by the Gwinnett County government, which, with a relatively smaller amount of employees, provides services for more citizens than the City of Atlanta.  Gwinnett County provides many of the services you might know about: police, fire, ems, parks, and roads.  But Gwinnett County also has a prison,
manages land-use, issues building permits, collects taxes – and allocates them
to other co-equal branches such as the courts and the Sheriff’s Office.  To touch on all of those issues would make this a very long interview, indeed, so instead, I asked Chairman Nash about water issues.

JD: “On February 12th, the Georgia House of Representatives passed HB 4, sponsored by Rep. Harry Geisinger (R. Roswell), in which the state of Georgia would suspend its claim on 66 square miles from an 1818 land survey which placed Georgia’s northern boundary on the northern shore of the Tennessee River.  Besides, I suppose, giving up on our claim on Chattanooga, it seeks a one mile easement to the Tennessee River at Lake Nickajack. Geisinger claims that Georgia could draw 24 billion gallons a year -- fifteen times the water drawn from the Chattahoochee River, effectively solving the state’s water issues for generations. What are your thoughts?”

CN: “I think the people of Georgia should not expect to drink water from the Tennessee River any time soon. But I am proud of the role that Gwinnett County has played in the recent positive decisions in the federal courts. Gwinnett took the lead in issues that are not limited in impact to Gwinnett County, but to the Atlanta metro region and to the state as a whole.  As you may recall, Federal District Court Judge Magnuson ruled in 2009 that water supply was not one of the allowable purposes for Lake Lanier. Fortunately, the Eleventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned this decision in June 2011and found that water supply is an allowed use.  In June 2012, the SCOTUS declined to hear appeals from Alabama and Florida, effectively ending this part of the case known as the Tri-State Water Rights Litigation.

This ruling is particularly important for Gwinnett since we draw our water directly from Lake Lanier.  It specifically allows Gwinnett to use the water it has been using for municipal use, which is great.  The decision by the Appeals Court and the refusal by the Supreme Court to hear an appeal went a long way to resolving
most of our water issues, though it did not address certain Endangered Species
Act issues.    We will always have the matter of the Corps of Engineers to deal with, and we will always be responsible that the water quality of Lake Lanier not degrade.  Fortunately, we have been able to lure Ron Seibenhener out of retirement to be our Director of Water Resources. Ron retired from Jordan, Jones, and Goulding.  He was also a past director of that county department.  We’ve planned for the future and for Gwinnett’s water needs.”

JD: “How so?”

CN: “Much of that planning can be seen at the F. Wayne Hill Water Resources facility in Buford.”

JD: “Okay, at this plant was built in response to state mandates of inter-basin transfers.  In short, the state of Georgia wanted to minimize the amount of water taken from one basin, say the Chattahoochee, and used and discarded in another basin, say the Ocmulgee.  The problem being, of course, is that though Gwinnett draws its water from Lake Lanier – the Chattahoochee basin, with roughly 90% of Gwinnett residing in other basins.”

CN: “Right.  The policy started with the Department of Natural Resources Board passing a policy emphasizing the need to return water to the basin it was drawn from.  Shortly thereafter, the General Assembly passed legislation limiting inter-basin transfers.  What developed here in Gwinnett was a plan to live as close to that law as possible. The F. Wayne Hill plant was built so as to treat wastewater to such a degree of cleanliness that it could be returned to Lake Lanier safely.  As a result, the water quality coming from the Hill plant has a higher quality than drinking water.”

JD: “What did the plant cost and what does it do?”

CN:  “The cost on the Hill plant to date has been about $750 Million. Currently Gwinnett County draws an average of 70-80 million gallons per day from Lake Lanier, which is down from an average closer to 90 MGD in 2007.  Peak usage is down as well, from almost 130 MGD a few years ago to about 100 MGD in recent years.  The current goal of the Hill plant is to treat and return 60 MGD back to Lake Lanier.  Currently we return considerably less than this amount.” 

JD:  “We are down that much?  What has that done to prices?”

CN: “Water and Sewer, as an enterprise fund, is run as a business, so the System’s revenues have to cover its costs without subsidy from taxes.  We have debt obligations and system operations that have to be funded. Pricing has been adjusted over time to meet these costs.    There is a certain irony when you consider that we built a second intake from Lake Lanier to help with demand – demand we don’t have as much for anymore.  What we did get from the second intake is redundancy, which is good from an engineering standpoint.  Since the newer intake is actually a tunnel below the bottom of the lake, we also assured that we will be able to reach water even with very low levels in the lake.”

JD: “To what do you attribute the reduced demand?”

CN: “I have my theories.  Obviously the slower economy is a factor.  There is less construction and therefore less of the associated uses of water for the construction process.  But I also believe the recent droughts have been a very large factor.  The very real truth that hit many people I know in the landscape business was, there just wasn’t enough water to irrigate everything that needed it.  So developers and landscapers stopped using plants that came from other places. They started concentrating on shrubs and grasses that were indigenous to Georgia – that could handle the heat and occasional droughts that we have.  Then
there are the new ‘low-flow’ toilets and water fixtures.  These changes are great for water conservation, but awful when you are selling water.”

 

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