Fairhope’s newest department heads have had a lot on their plates to deal with since coming on the job.
Planning Director Wayne Dyess, Operations Director Richard Peterson and Economic and Community Development Director Sherry Lea Bloodworth-Botop have had to navigate multiple issues between the mayor and city council members, as well as trying to find ways to make changes in their departments and the city at large for the positive.
While all agree the job before them isn’t an easy one, they all feel they have the ability and experience to keep Fairhope moving in a positive direction.
“I think you’ve got a lot of people with a lot of experience from different places with all of us,” Dyess said. “Sherry Lea has experience in DC and LA and all over, I’ve been fortunate to be around a few places in planning and Richard’s been at Riviera, one of the leading utility providers in Alabama, so there’s a wealth of information and knowledge to draw from within our group to put to use for the city of Fairhope.”
Dyess said the openness and willingness from the city, especially Mayor Karin Wilson, to try to find new ways of doing things has been incredibly promising.
“Many times in local government, you’re stuck doing the same thing again and again and again,” Dyess said. “It’s difficult to change that culture and that pattern of doing things, but I think the mayor has said there’s a better way possibly of doing things, so let’s explore every method we can to try to do that. We just want to see if we can do better, and, if we can, we’re going to find those better ways to do it and do them.”
Bloodworth-Botop agreed with Dyess.
“All of our goals and the way that we’re organizing are all direct results from getting input from the voters,” Bloodworth-Botop said. “I was impressed with how quickly the mayor audited the landscape of how the city was structured for gaps in order to achieve the results for the citizens in the ways that they were asking. Responsible growth, transparency, fiscal responsibility - these are the type of things the voters said they wanted, so we’re all trying to make them happen.”
Bloodworth-Botop’s department is a completely new one for Fairhope, but one she said the city has needed for some time.
“We had a Parks and Recreation department, but that’s a completely different thing,” Bloodworth-Botop said. “Our citizens are very sophisticated. We have business people, entrepreneurs, retired heads of corporations - people who know how businesses should be run, and a city is not that different.”
Peterson’s job is also a newly created position. Since the city of Fairhope owns its own utilities, Wilson said she wanted to bring in someone with a great deal of expertise to get the most out of those city assets for the citizens.
“I feel like I’ve been received with open arms with the people I’m working with from the different utilities,” Peterson said. “I think our mission today is to evaluate the condition of the infrastructure and the capacity of the infrastructure. While we have a wastewater facility that might be state of the art, we want to bring the rest of our facilities to that same level.”
Peterson said he wants to see the utilities better engage new technologies and innovations that will help operate and maintain the systems more effectively, like mapping.
“There are pieces of some of this in place, but it’s taking those pieces and putting them together in the right way to become an asset to the system and the city,” Peterson said. “We have a mapping system in place, but we really don’t have a direction in place as to how we want to utilize it, how we want it to perform for us down the road. It just takes time to develop the data and integrate those systems into the map.”
Peterson said with all of the growth in the Fairhope area, there will definitely need to be issues addressed and changes made to keep the city on track.
“We can’t get to where we can be immediately,” Peterson said. “We have to start taking steps to identify priorities and what we need to address immediately, from what’s most critical and then continue to build from that.”
For Peterson and Bloodworth-Botop, the creation of their positions was not without controversy, as some council members and citizens balked at the idea of creating two six-figure jobs that weren’t currently in the city’s budget.
“It was uncomfortable for me when I moved back,” Bloodworth-Botop said. “There was a lot of talk among my friends that I had to hear, saying things like ‘Wow, you’re going to be making a lot of money.’ That was the focus of that.”
She said the controversy about the salary was really a misunderstanding.
“It was a misinterpretation of the pay grades,” Bloodworth-Botop said. “For my position it was a pay grade that already existed and several other directors are on that spectrum. And I was at the lower end of that spectrum, but it got meshed into this conversation about bringing in new positions for hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s all people heard, so it was unfortunate.”
Bloodworth-Botop said there has been some confusion with her role.
“A lot of what I’ve learned and what I’ve been trained to do is in how cities are working now, which is cross-departmentally,” Bloodworth-Botop said. “It’s to look across the entire structure of city operations and look for opportunities for efficiencies, ways to work better with the citizens and engage them, to be responsible in the way we work and plan.”
All agreed that their departments’ focuses all overlapped with one another, especially with regards to planning.
“I’m looking at from the way of where is the opportunity to engage in this process and what are the economic opportunities for investors there,” Bloodworth-Botop said. “For Wayne, it’s much more logistics based and seeing what laws and ordinances have to be followed and making sure that the impact of any sort of development isn’t harmful. For Richard, it’s looking at our capacities and making sure we’re growing in a sustainable way. We all overlap with one another, so we have to cooperate and work together to create this vision of how we move forward.”
Dress said one way the group has been trying to address growth is to look at what the founders of Fairhope did in the beginning.
“I’m a student of history, so we’ve been going back to what the original founders did with their planning and seeing how they laid things out,” Dyess said. “For something that’s over 100 years old, they actually had a lot of great ideas for how to promote development the right way, and there’s things that we can take and apply from that even today.”
Dress said Fairhope’s strong sense of past and history is big part of what makes Fairhope Fairhope, and it’s something that’s important to him to try to protect.
“This is certainly a special place, and I think everyone that lives here wants to be sure that we preserve Fairhope for the wonderful town that it is,” Dyess said. “So, we have to look carefully at what kinds of development we’re talking about and what we’re allowing to come in here.”
All three agreed a new, more coherent comprehensive plan would be useful in achieving that goal.
“We’ve had some plans that show that we want to push development into a villages concept, and the citizens have weighed in on that some,” Dyess said. “But, we really need to have a set, cohesive plan in order to be able to enforce the kind of development areas that we’ve talked about there.”
Another way for the citizens to provide input on development and planning issues is a design studio that Bloodworth-Botop said will eventually be set up at city hall.
“It just provides a space for anyone who wants to come to see what sort of developments or additions may be coming into the city, and it gives them a chance to provide real, immediate feedback on those issues,” Bloodworth-Botop said. “Growth like this affects all of us, so this gives people a more direct way to give opinions and feedback than just a public hearing during a planning commission meeting or a council session.”
All three said they were excited to be working for the people of Fairhope and they hope to get more feedback from citizens as they progress in their jobs.
“We’re working for the people in these jobs,” Dyess said. “We want to be sure that we’re all moving this city in the direction that the residents want to go in, and that’s what we’re going to do.”