Orange County Manager Bonnie Hammersley says she knows enough to flag something that doesn’t seem right, but she’s an “expert in nothing.”
“My department directors are the experts,” she said. “When I resolve issues, I bring all the experts in to tell me how we should resolve those issues and value their expertise.”
That doesn’t mean county staff will spend a lot of time talking, Hammersley said. She’s more results oriented, she said.
“I don’t like things to take a long time. I’m kind of impatient,” she said.
“The other thing my family would tell you is don’t ever tell Bonnie that something can’t be done, because I will prove you wrong,” she said. “I will do whatever it takes.”
The 55-year-old Wisconsin native joined Orange County government in June, replacing interim County Manager Michael Talbert and former County Manager Frank Clifton. She sat down recently to talk about her previous experiences and what she’s learned about Orange County.
While Hammersley spent her last five years as the county administrator of Muskegon County, Mich., she has held many other jobs, from working in a sock factory and as a hospital administrative services manager to running a printing press. For 21 years, she worked for the government in Dane County, Wisc. – home of the state capital and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Muskegon was smaller, “but they were facing challenges that I hadn’t had an experience with, and I wanted a broader experience,” she said.
The county grew with the region’s auto industry, she said, but after the 2008 recession, it struggled with 16.7 percent unemployment, high poverty and a need for economic development. By 2010, the county had a $3.8 million budget shortfall. They were choosing between what they had to pay and what could wait, Hammersley said.
She started a functional budget process by combining 24 county departments into four work groups: public safety, human services, community services and general government. The departments in each group were asked to work together to find ways to save money, she said.
Some people felt threatened, Hammersley said, but others found solutions, including state and federal grants. Muskegon County’s 2015 budget is forecasting an $800,000 shortfall, and she thinks they’ll soon have a budget surplus.
“One of the good things that happened out of that was I encouraged them to be creative, I encouraged them to look at things differently,” she said.
Orange County has faced similar shortfalls, and interim manager Talbert has warned the county can’t keep using its savings. Hammersley isn’t planning changes to the process for at least a year.
CHN: You dealt with overcrowded jails and abusive conditions while in Dane and Muskegon counties. One county built a jail before trying alternative sentencing and treatment programs, while the other is finishing a jail and juvenile transition center now. What are your thoughts about Orange County’s plans for a new jail?
Hammersley: The one really exciting thing for me here is that there is a desire for many of the key stakeholders in a lot of the issues here to really make a difference, and in my other counties, there were a number of the key stakeholders in those functions that at times were barriers to the process.
I met with the current sheriff (Lindy Pendergrass). He is extremely supportive, and I think that this county’s been very lucky to have the sheriff they have. I’ve met with the sheriff-elect (Charles Blackwood), and I think he’s going to come in and do some really good things.
How would you characterize your leadership style?
Hammersley: I facilitate what happens. I’m a servant-leader. I serve the county board of commissioners and I serve the employees of Orange County. Through my efforts, my goal is that they are effectively able to serve the residents of Orange County. … It’s giving people tools. It’s guiding them to meet the results that we, as an organization, have determined are the priorities.
One of the things I did when I came here was (introduce) myself to all the employees ... I want to see the pictures of their families. I want to have memories, so I can remember them. The other thing that I will be doing, starting in October, is quarterly listening sessions with all employees. ... It’s their meeting, and they can ask me anything.
What have you learned about Orange County’s strengths and weaknesses?
Hammersley: One of the strengths is the engagement of the residents of Orange County. ... The commissioners are engaged, the employees are engaged, and everybody has a real desire to do the right thing for people.
I see a lot of opportunities to collaborate with towns and to work more closely with towns and to build really strong relationships. ... I’ve met with the town managers, and we’ve talked about some issues together. I want to continue to do that. I’ve asked for them to schedule monthly meetings with me, so we have a placeholder each month.
The weaknesses ... what I always do is I wait six months. I sit back and observe and figure out how we do things and why we do them this way. I don’t think it’s smart to make any changes before six months, because a lot of times, if you make those changes, you’ll find out that you have to change it back, because you didn’t realize why they were doing that.