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.
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.
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