Gary Black and a Department of Agriculture locked in amber

For 42 years, Democrat Tommy Irvin ran the state Department of Agriculture.

His lean, lanky figure became — and remains — something of an icon for Georgia farmers. And so his replacement, Republican Gary Black, is very careful when he speaks of his now 81-year-old predecessor.

State Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black/AJC file

State Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black/AJC file

But in speeches across the state, Black has dropped hints about what greeted him when he walked into the state agriculture building as its first new boss since Lester Maddox was governor.

In an interview this week, the new agriculture commissioner said he found nothing that could be termed malfeasance. But he described a $40 million-a-year, 600-employee department that in some ways had been frozen in amber.

One of the first things Black did was to order the removal of murals depicting black slaves harvesting sugar cane and picking cotton. But that was mere window-dressing. Literally.

The department’s phone system was a better indicator of the state of things.

Not one telephone in the state agriculture offices had voice mail. “If you called the primary number — my experience had been, if you called at 4:30 p.m., it rang until 8:30 the next morning,” Black said. He’s taking bids on a new system now.

Former state agriculture commissioner Tommy Irvin/AJC

Former state agriculture commissioner Tommy Irvin/AJC

Black said a review of the department’s bills did, however, turn up 40 phone lines that had been installed to cope with increased demand during the Atlanta Olympics. But the phone lines had never been connected to actual telephones — though some of the lines did have voice-mail capability.

“You and I have paid for them since ’96,” Black said. “I don’t know why. It doesn’t help to know why.”

The main number for the department rang directly in the commissioner’s office. That had allowed the secretary who picked up the phone — during business hours, anyway — to do a little politicking by telling the caller that he or she had reached the personal offices of Tommy Irvin. A switchboard operator has now been designated and located elsewhere in the building. She simply asks, “How may I help you?”

Just as all phone calls first went to the commissioner, all decisions were walked into his office. During Black’s first days in office, he would regularly find agriculture employees waiting his lobby — sometimes for 20 minutes and longer, to address routine matters.

“Shoot me an e-mail,” the new commissioner suggested. “People have always used e-mail, but not with the commissioner.”

Then there are the many checks that Black said he found, written to vendors for $4,950. The state requires bids for all expenditures over $5,000. That practice has been stopped — but again, Black says he discovered nothing that could be called crooked.

Just as Black has been careful not to saddle Irvin with blame, the new ag commissioner is protective of the employees that he has inherited. “We had to have some customer-service discussions, but I’m not throwing my employees under the bus. This is the way it’s been.”

The most essential duties of the state agriculture department — consumer protection and food inspection — are in good shape, Black said. “I’m very comfortable with that. We have some very competent people. We have to get their salaries up — we’re losing them to the federal government,” the commissioner said.

But Black also said that the State Farmer’s Market in Forest Park has fallen into disrepair. It and other markets have been neglected, and Black would like to revive their retail operations. “We want them to be destinations again. We want them to be places that people go to,” he said.

The department’s weakest area may be in the animal protection division, which issues licenses to kennels, breeders, animal shelters, rescue groups and stables, and enforces state laws mandating the humane treatment of horses and other animals.

The economic collapse has sent complaints skyrocketing. “They’re time-consuming and, rightfully so, very emotional,” Black said. And the division’s licensing system is made of paper.

Black told of a woman who complained of submitting a $200 kennel fee in November. She still hadn’t received her license as of May. Looking into the matter personally, Black discovered the division was operating with two sets of paper files.

Black gave the woman her license — plus her $200 back, and the $15 she spent to stop payment on the check.

He’d like to someday institute a similar policy — satisfaction guaranteed or your money back — throughout the department. But not now.

Irvin, meanwhile, is recovering at his home in Mount Airy, in Habersham County, after a March car accident. He has Parkinson’s Disease, and has given up driving.

On Wednesday, an agriculture department spokesman brought Irvin into a conference call with this reporter, and we spoke briefly of the changes Black had brought to his former workplace. Voice mail, e-mail and such.

Black has introduced a Facebook page for the department, where food recalls can be posted. The department suddenly has five Twitter accounts.

“That probably is a sign of the times,” Irvin conceded.

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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12 comments Add your comment

Anonymous

May 25th, 2011
6:14 pm

Irvin is right. I have spoken with both commissioners and both view themselves as public servants. The difference is more Black’s bringing in his own methods and improving his operations to benefit our citizens. Change is necessary but it is not always an indicator that the previous methods were bad. They have just become out dated. Georgia is a lot bigger than when Irvin was first elected in the 50’s.

John Galt

May 25th, 2011
7:42 pm

Both commissioners are good men, and as an acquaintance of both, I assure you that they respect each other. Mr. Irwin simply had not brought the operational systems into the current century, and Gary is working very hard to do that without throwing Mr. Irwin under a bus.

Mr. Tommy was very effective during his era, he just comes from a different generation. The Department is not unlike a family business that is undergoing radical modernization after a son took over for an old school father.

Andy

May 25th, 2011
10:18 pm

Hopefully, Gary Black is more ‘media friendly’ than Irvin, even though Irvin seems more like an administrator as commissioner than someone willing to run in front of a camera.

double

May 25th, 2011
10:56 pm

good to hear food inspection,and consumer protection in good shape.Although I think food handlers need more stringent rules and inspections.

the original and still the best John Galt

May 26th, 2011
8:35 am

Sounds like the Ag department is much like other State agencies. In another agency a few years ago the pudgy redneck appointed by the Guvna to run things couldn’t believe that we needed a fax machine- one single fax machine for the entire agency.

blue dog

May 26th, 2011
9:25 am

The Dept of Ag is pretty unique compared to the rest of this state’s government agencies because there is no Dept head even remotely close to Irwin in time served. It is suprising that Perdue, with his customer friendly, efficiency push did not effect any change in the Ag Dept. Most agencies updated their computer programs to become more efficient, offsetting the loss of positions. Now you can do most things, like license renewals on line. Tommy, while a good man, should have done us all a favor and retired many years ago.
BTW, I really like what I am hearing from Mr Black; very intelligent, thoughtful, caring individual.

Tracey

May 26th, 2011
9:37 am

Great article Jim. I’m always glad to hear about positive, constituent-focused, progressive politicians like Mr. Black. I used to work for the State so I am not surprised one bit to hear about the Dark Age conditions in the AG department.

Gordon O'Neill

May 26th, 2011
4:02 pm

Jim,

Interesting article. Enjoy you on The Georgia Gang.

Gordon

ANGRY AS HELL

May 27th, 2011
5:30 am

Blue Dog–You don’t get it. The Ag Dept’s commissioner is an elected post, not one where a Governor (especially a Governor of a different political party than the Commissioner’s) going to do anything to help the Ag Dept. Maybe now with a Governor and Commissioner of the same party more support will be given. Tommy Irvin did a lot for Georgia’s agricultural stature around the country and the world. However, let’s be honest. Tommy Irvin’s style of doing business was on the cutting edge of 18th Century business practices. He didn’t want his senior managers making independent decisions. He didn’t trust them to do that. He wanted to make virtually every decision for the agency and its senior managers.One of the reasons he lasted as long as he did was his desire to “touch” everyone who called the agency for help or information. He didn’t run for re-election every four years. Tommy ran for re-election every day. That’s the reason he kept getting re- elected. I’m sure Commissioner Black is being just all too kind to the staff he’s inherited. For those in the know, there are managers at the Ag Dept. that should have retired years ago. Commissioner Black will have to do a lot more than just replace the phone system. He may end up needing to replace many senior level managers if he wants to effect real change.

the original and still the best John Galt

May 27th, 2011
9:11 am

“Angry as Hell” is right, and the Ag department is not the only one to which what he or she says applies. The agency I used to work for makes all decisions at the top to this day. Alleged “managers” who are paid in six figures have to ask permission to go to the bathroom. Makes you wonder whay the taxpayer’s money is spent paying them so well when they don’t actually do anything.

missmollie

May 27th, 2011
11:08 am

Don’t talk about Mr Tommy to me and many others. He was and is still an icon. I didn’t like Mr
Black taking down the wall mural….Cottoning picking is/was a part of Georgia heritage; except now it is done with air conditioned cab machinery. Not a smart move. IMO. He just wanted to cater
to “some” of his new staff.. Thanks mr Tommy and hope you are still recovering…God Bless!!!

missmollie

May 27th, 2011
11:58 am

P. S. What has removing a mural off of the wall got to do with modernizing the system….
Makes me sick…..Stir, stir, stir. I voted for Mr Black…This is like insulting your father, messing with Mr Tommy…