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By John Barnhart
George Nester, Bedford County’s director of community development, is leaving for Halifax County. He takes over as that county’s administrator next month.
Nester worked as town manager of Vinton for seven years and also as city manager of Covington. He was Franklin County’s county administrator for eight years before taking up his current job in Bedford County.
Nester was born in Bedford County and actually met his wife, Janet, here. They first met when they were confined in a playpen together when they were toddlers. He started dating her after high school.
Family is what led Nester to move from being a county administrator to working for one. His father, who lived here, had terminal cancer.
“I had a year and a half with him and that, to me, is priceless,” Nester commented.
It also gave him an opportunity that he really liked — the opportunity to completely rebuild a staff. He got here in the middle of a period of high turnover in the planning staff and, within a short time of his arrival, had only one planner, Lindsey Blankenship who was already on staff. She later took a job, a career advancement opportunity, in Roanoke County.
“For me, that was an ideal opportunity,” Nester said, noting that few managers get to pick their staff.
His current staff, consisting of three planners and one senior planner, are all people he hired.
Nester said that teamwork is important, including the people involved with the geographical information system, planning, the building official, sediment and erosion control, and the people working in the department’s front office. He said the front office staff are the department’s unsung heroines because they are the first ones to meet those coming into the office. This includes those who are upset about something.
“We have a good team here,” Nester said.
Nester said he didn’t want a staff of “yes” people. A manager gets the most effective work from employees by letting them do their work. He said they will work more effectively if they know they are going to be responsible, but if a manager takes over bits of work, employees will surrender that.
To illustrate his point, Nester recalls the time he was town manager of Ashland in 1979. It was a winter afternoon and a major snow storm was on its way. He had a conversation with the public works director.
“I know how to get snow off the streets, but every town manager tells me something different,” the man told Nester.
Nester decided to let him alone and let him do his job. A few days later, Nester said a man who had lived there for 45 years told town council, “’This town manager did a better job of getting snow off the street than any before.’ ...The hardest part of my job [as a manager] is to stay out of the way while they [his staff] do their jobs,” Nester said.
Things have now calmed down. The staff in Bedford County has been rebuilt and the rate of development in the county has slowed, something that he said started in June 2006. It’s still relatively slow, although he said that he is beginning to see activity pick up.
During his time here, he successfully shepherded through a resolution to a thorny issue, the zoning ordinance language on religious assemblies. This became an issue when the Cowboy Church, a church that meets in non-traditional venues, was temporarily shut down by the county’s planing department for allegedly violating the zoning ordinance and state building code. It was later determined the the county was mistaken. Nester facilitated a committee consisting of members of the county planning commission and church representatives, including the Cowboy Church’s pastor, to suggest modifications to the zoning ordinance that will allow the ordinance to serve its purpose without unduly burdening churches. It also set up a system for resolving problems.
“That was quite an experience,” he commented.
Nester is also shepherding a major revision of the zoning ordinance, although he will be gone before this is complete. He said that the existing ordinance, which was adopted in 1998, has been around long enough that staff have been able to identify what works and what doesn’t. The goal is to develop an ordinance that is both simpler and easier to understand. They also want to make sure the ordinance carries out the missions identified in the new comprehensive plan. Nester said that they are currently halfway through the process and getting input from builders and property owners.
“I’ve been very satisfied with what we have been able to accomplish,” Nester said.
Nester said that the current slow point makes a good exit point for him.
“I’ve been a professional manager,” he said. “You always want to leave when things are working well.”
Nester believes that a manager must be a coach and a mentor and create a work environment in which employees are not afraid to make an honest mistake. A manager needs a staff consisting of people who are not afraid to act when the need to.
“They need to feel comfortable that you are not going to hang them out to dry,” he said.
At the same time, a professional manager wants to go someplace where there are challenges. Halifax County will provide that. The 824-square-mile rural county has an 8 percent unemployment rate, much higher than Bedford County’s which stands at 5.9 percent. It needs industrial and community development. It also needs to consolidate its solid waste collection points to reduce the cost of transporting trash. Nester said that Bedford County has done an excellent job in this respect and can serve as a model. One step in particular, the trash compactors at Bedford County’s collection sites, means that trash can be picked up and hauled directly to the landfill, rather than having to go through an intermediate site. This increases efficiency, lowering costs.
Nester said that he is impressed with Kathleen Guzi, Bedford County’s county administrator. Guzi hired him. He said that the fact that Guzi wasn’t intimidated taking on an employee who had been a county administrator and this speaks volumes about her.
“You have to have a lot of confidence in yourself to go ahead and take that chance,” Nester commented.
He said she has been great to work with.
“She has encouraged and supported not only me but the whole department,” Nester said. “She’s the consummate professional.”
Nester said that he will be able to take some lessons he’s learned here to apply to his new job.
“Bedford County does so many things well,” he said.