MARIETTA — Earlier this summer, Cobb County was forced to wrangle with an ugly problem: government work, it appeared, wasn’t looking all that attractive anymore.
Facing near-crippling staff shortfalls, county department heads were leaning on the commission to spend millions and increase pay for their thousands of employees. Not only that, they wanted hundreds of new positions to step up quality-of-life services they argued had been underfunded for years.
The public grumbled at the prospect of expanding government with a possible recession looming. Some commissioners wondered whether a more gradual approach was in order, and suggested tabling the new hires.
Enter County Manager Jackie McMorris, who stepped in to draw the line.
“I ask that the board would trust me and this team to continuously monitor and engage what you have asked us to be good stewards of, and that’s taxpayer dollars,” McMorris said at a June budget discussion. “We are doing that.”
She went on, shaking her head, “But to ask (staff) to come back and (submit the requests) again? No. They have done everything you all have asked them to do.”
McMorris, who’s worked as the county’s highest-ranking civilian employee since early 2020, told the MDJ in an interview this week that role is one that comes naturally to her.
“I am very comfortable in that,” she said. “… At the end of the day, my job is to do what’s best for Cobb, because (commissioners) may or may not be in those seats. I don’t know. And I don’t want another board coming in that I may have to work for (saying) ‘What were you thinking?’”
As she alluded to, the county’s highest-ranking employee works off a different set of priorities than its elected leaders.
Said former east Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott, who counts McMorris as a personal friend, “One of the things that really makes her a good person for the job is, she knows how to deal with people ... The county manager walks a really fine line. You’ve got five commissioners that you have to deal with ... with five different egos, five different directions that commissioners want to go.
“And you have to kind of be able to work between all that, and at the same time, make the county run smoothly. I think it takes a special person to be able to do that.”
South Cobb Commissioner Monique Sheffield called McMorris “the glue that keeps the employees and the BOC bonded.
”It isn’t always an easy task because we have different styles of leadership and styles of serving our constituents. She is always available and ‘on call’ when needed and always working towards making Cobb the best place to live,” Sheffield said.
Former Cobb Chairman and Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens echoed that praise in calling McMorris a tireless supporter of the county and its workers.
”I feel she works overtime to obtain as much agreement as possible from the Board of Commissioners, and she strives to be accessible to everyone,” Olens said. “...The county can’t succeed without a very successful county manager. In order to be a successful commissioner, or successful chairwoman or chairman, you need to rely on that county manager for day to day activity, for keeping everyone on task each and every day.”
Jack of all trades
McMorris came to Cobb by way of a winding path. Her original career was not in government, but academia, as a professor of public speaking and English at what was then Georgia Perimeter College, since absorbed into Georgia State University. She also worked as a special assistant to the Georgia Perimeter’s president, where she said she began to master the “jack of all trades” job description.
For a few years, McMorris relocated to Bentonville, Arkansas, where her husband did a stint at Walmart’s corporate headquarters. Returning to Georgia around 2002, McMorris hoped to land another university job but found herself between hiring cycles.
Instead, she put in for the head of Cherokee County’s community relations department. She landed the job as a sort of second-in-command to then-County Manager Jerry Cooper.
“It was really working with, again, special projects, CDBG (community development block grants) — a lot of grants writing … working with the press, those kinds of things,” she said.
McMorris stayed in Cherokee for nine years, until becoming chief of staff for former Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. It was yet another Swiss Army knife-esque role.
“(The job) was to work with the lawyers and the staff, and coordinating things around the district attorney’s schedule. Again, working with the press, and filtering through who gets to the DA,” she explained, adding the job was primarily “just for the experience.”
It wasn’t until the start of 2013, after more than a decade in government, that McMorris landed in her present home in Cobb. She was brought in to head up the Public Services Agency, which oversees libraries, parks, senior services, and other quality-of-life departments.
At the time, sitting in the chair McMorris would one day hold was longtime County Manager David Hankerson. McMorris said Hankerson “had his hands in everything.”
“Mr. Hankerson … maybe during his time, when it wasn’t quite as crazy as it is around here, may have had the time to be able to be into everything,” McMorris said (Cobb’s population when Hankerson came on in 1993 was less than half a million people, compared to over 766,000 now).
After Hankerson retired, McMorris spent several years as deputy county manager, essentially being trained for the role while it was held down by Rob Hosack from 2017 to 2020. She told the MDJ her style is to lend her staff a little leeway — leading more so than managing.
“If I tried to do that,” she said of Hankerson’s hands-on approach, “then things would probably come to a grinding halt. I remind people that these (department heads) are experts in their own right. These are folks with master’s degrees, doctorate degrees, who could go out into the private sector or corporate America and do this work and probably make more money doing it. So they don’t need me to do their job.”
Ott, who worked with Hankerson, Hosack, and McMorris, said each has been “the right person at the right time.”
“You throw in a worldwide pandemic, which Jackie had to deal with. It takes a really special person to be able to juggle the five of us, and deal with county staff, in something that we didn’t know about and obviously, you can never be prepared for. And I think she did a stellar job,” Ott said.
Added Olens, “I think that one of the key ingredients of a successful county manager is the ability to bring the commissioners together, and to seek a united face of the county, and I frankly think that all three of them accomplished that.”
At another point, McMorris said, “I’m hands on, but not to the point where I micromanage my team. I want to know and be a part of and aware of what’s going on, but allow them to be innovative, to be creative, to make mistakes, even.”
She added, referring to Hankerson, “But I don’t like surprises. Neither did he.”
Punching the clock
Before most of her subordinates walk in the door each morning, McMorris is already at her desk. She said she’s typically there by 6:45 a.m., running through emails and catching up on yesterday’s business.
“So by eight o’clock in the morning, I have been here long enough to have — all right, I’m ready to go and get with the day … when people are coming in, I’ve already done everything I need to do,” she said.
Meetings are usually a safe bet for what comes next.
“Today, for example,” she said, “I met with some internal staff, and then moved on to agenda prep. Agenda prep lasted about 45 minutes to an hour, and then after that, it was again, meetings, status meetings, more meetings, and just trying to keep up with what’s going on with daily operations.”
By the letter of the law, the agenda voted on every other week by the Board of Commissioners is “the county manager’s.” Some agenda items come from staff, while others are from commissioners themselves, but it’s primarily McMorris’ job to bring it all together.
“I tend to only get in the weeds to the extent that I want to make sure that they are written clearly, concisely, and that the questions that I try to anticipate from the board have been answered,” she said of the staff requests.
As for the commissioners’ asks, she added, “There’s never been a time when a commissioner has asked or inquired about an agenda that I’ve ever said no to putting something on there.”
That practice stands in contrast to the Cobb County Board of Education, where a majority of the board must agree before an item is placed on the agenda.
But she doesn’t care to spend time on ideas that aren’t going anywhere.
“I always tried to make sure that we had the votes for something, because it just doesn’t make sense to bring something forward, when we know we don’t have support for it,” she said. “… Everything that we put on the agenda, in my opinion, should have already been vetted enough that we know where our board stands on it.”
The hours her job requires don’t leave time for much else, but McMorris said she tries to spend as much of it as she can with her two children and six grandchildren, who are spread between South Carolina and Mississippi.
“Weekends are pretty busy ... If I can, I grab a nap in between, or I’ll watch SEC football on Saturdays while doing laundry, like everybody else,” she said.
‘Cobb has always led’
Taking the county manager’s post just weeks before the pandemic shuttered Cobb, COVID-19 has loomed large as one of the major challenges in McMorris’ tenure so far. The other thorn in her side remains the county’s ongoing workforce troubles.
“We have been challenged with things that everybody’s facing in the labor market right now. You may get 300 applications, but are they really good, qualified applicants? Most of them, we don’t even get that many,” she said, adding the county’s also lost a lot of “institutional knowledge” from employees who retired after decades-long careers.
Speaking about the major hiccups since 2020, McMorris at one point digressed, saying, “I can’t lie, sometimes some of the decisions that we’ve had to make as a board, or some of the things that have come up as part of the board, trying to figure out how we work together as a team, are opportunities for us.
“And sometimes I think those are missed opportunities, where we can work more collaboratively together,” she added.
Asked what specific examples she was thinking of, she replied with a wry smile, “None that I’d like to share.”
One of the things that keeps her up at night, McMorris later added, is the increasingly strained nature of political debate in Cobb.
“I say that seriously, with a disappointed heart, in that Cobb has always led in this space of coming together as a community. And we’ve shown that even as recently as the loss of our two (sheriff’s) deputies,” she said. “But you’ve been to our meetings as of late. You’ve seen some of the anger, the tone.
She continued, “… I don’t think that we are alone in that. So does the nation go, so does the state and so does the county. Sometimes I look at it, and I go, we have so much in which to be blessed for. There’s so many places in the world that would love to have the problems that we have.
“However, I am optimistic that we will continue to support each other, will continue to grow and to get back to that point where I hope people are still looking at us as a leader in a lot of areas. But I don’t want us to — it’s a slippery slope. You can lose that so easily.”