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New leadership sees new direction for Macon

The outgoing chair, Commissioner Paul Higdon (right), congratulates  the new chair, Commissioner Gary Shields. Bob Scott photo The outgoing chair, Commissioner Paul Higdon (right), congratulates the new chair, Commissioner Gary Shields. Bob Scott photo

Macon County will see a change of leadership for the coming year after the county commission unanimously voted to appoint a new member to the chairmanship. 

The shift in leadership came with a call for the commission to implement stricter protocols for both professionalism from commissioners and participation from the public after a lengthy and rowdy meeting last month that resulted in heated comments from Commissioner John Shearl, who at one point even called for County Manager Derek Roland’s resignation.  

“We think it’s a good thing maybe to change leadership every year,” said outgoing Chairman Paul Higdon.

While there is no precedent for installing a new chairman annually — most boards select a chairman who serves for their entire four-year term — Macon commissioners all agreed with the change. At its December meeting, the board replaced Higdon with Gary Shields. Higdon had served as chairman since his reelection to the commission in November 2022.

Prior to Shields’ appointment, Commissioner Danny Antoine nominated Josh Young for the position; however, the motion failed for lack of a second. Then, Higdon made the motion for Shields to serve as chairman.

“Mr. Gary Shields expressed a great interest in serving as chairman of this board. I’ve known Gary for 60-something years; we’re both veterans, we have a lot in common. I respect him greatly,” said Higdon. “As chairman, it gives me great pride to nominate Mr. Gary Shields as chairman of the board for the coming year.”

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Shearl seconded the motion, and it was approved unanimously.

Shields’ first action as chairman was to nominate Young as vice chair. That position was also approved unanimously.

With the change in leadership the commission also looks to implement stricter protocols for professionalism from commissioners and participation from the public.

“We feel like we need to go back and look at the public comment period that’s in our book and make sure that we’re going by the rules or the policy that’s in there,” said Shields.

He said there would be a total of 45 minutes allotted for the public comment period with each speaker limited to five minutes. Topics must be related to Macon County, and no immediate action by the board on issues brought up in public comment should be expected. Furthermore, Shields said that board members would not interact with speakers or the questions they may bring to the board, but that the board would listen to what speakers have to say.

“Any outbursts will not be tolerated, we’re going to keep this civil,” said Sheriff Brent Holbrooks. “I spoke to Mr. Shields prior to this meeting; if that does continue like it has in months past, you’ll be asked to leave.”

Directly following the change in leadership, several Macon residents took to the podium during public comment to ask that Shearl publicly apologize for his comments toward the county manager , including his calling for Roland’s resignation, during the November meeting.

“On behalf of a lot of citizens in Macon County … a lot of us feel that publicly, John, you owe Derek an apology,” said Hazel Morris. “We need to be pleasant. Whether we like one another, whether we agree with one another, whether we don’t agree with one another, we still need to be pleasant and civil and respectful.” 

Shields responded to Morris by saying he had spoken one-on-one with commissioners and that they “will agree to disagree in a respectful manner.” 

“That’s what you’re alluding to there, and we all agree on that,” he said, adding that Shearl had come to the meeting with a prepared statement which Shields would permit him to read after the public comment period.

Shearl responded to Morris with an anecdote about tone of speech versus content of speech and said “if you back me in a corner, when I come out of that corner it’s going to get ugly. I’m not going to crumble, I’m not going to bow down to whatever, but I assure you that when I come out of that corner it’s not going to be pleasant. And in my mind, I was backed in a corner and that’s not where I want to be.” 

Along with Morris and two other residents, former Sheriff Robbie Holland also spoke during public comment to ask Shearl to apologize. Holland called the November meeting “embarrassing,” and touted Roland’s work as county manager. As sheriff, Holland worked with Roland in his capacity as manager for over 20 years.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with five county managers, and I want you to know, Mr. Roland, of all the county managers I’ve ever worked with … there’s no county manager that I’ve ever worked with that worked harder for the citizens of Macon County, which include the employees that work for you, that work for these men. You stood up for us; you stood by us,” said Holland. “I hope that by the end of the night you get a public apology.” 

Holland said that he was speaking not only for himself, but on behalf of several county employees who called him and asked that he speak up on their behalf.

“Thank you for the hard work you do, Derek. You’re a great county manager,” said Holland. “You’re a native of this community, you have this community at heart, and if your family is listening, I hope that they hear what I have to say tonight because a whole lot of people feel the same way I do, and they listened to how you were treated last month, and it was embarrassing. I appreciate you.”

However, when it came time for Shearl to read his prepared statement, he made no such apology. He spoke to unity, and his belief that all commissioners love the county, their communities and want the best for Macon. He said that while he doesn’t “want conflict to define Macon County,” he did want to define where he stands “as an elected official and a taxpayer of Macon County.”

Shearl acknowledged that he misspoke about the budget increasing by $25 million under Derek Roland’s management but went on to complain about the increase in fund balance over the years, as well as the media and its “twisting the narrative instead of reporting on the bigger picture.” 

“The spin can be put on any topic when information is purposely left out because some journalists have a history of making judgements on something without having a clue what had transpired behind the scenes to cause the friction in the first place,” Shearl said.

Shearl was adamant that he is not against county employees but is against using ARPA funds to pay county employees, saying he would rather see those funds used for capital improvements.  Use of ARPA funds for premium pay for county employees was approved by the previous county commission, before Shearl was elected, when the funds were disseminated.

At the end of his diatribe, Shearl began to talk about why he had called for Roland’s resignation, stating that it had nothing to do with ARPA funds. But after several minutes of monologue, Shields cut him off, telling him it was time to wrap it up.

“Mr. Shearl shared his thoughts with you and that’ll be the last time,” said Shields. “He said what you asked him to, made his response, we won’t be revisiting those types of things.”

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