Reichert fires head of Workforce Development

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert has fired Lori Howard, the administrator of his Office of Workforce Development.

“I wish her well. I’m sure she will do fine,” Reichert said. “I wanted to make a change in that department and set it in a different direction.”

Reichert has spent the past year trying to re-energize the Workforce Development advisory board with new appointments, said his spokesman, Andrew Blascovich. He also needed a new administrator to achieve his vision of a more engaged and community-driven operation, Blascovich said.

Workforce Development is the local administrative entity for the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, a federally funded U.S. Department of Labor program that provides employability training to adults, dislocated workers and youth. Former Mayor Jack Ellis hired Howard to direct Workforce in 2004.

Howard said she was taken entirely by surprise when Reichert called her into his office Tuesday and terminated her employment. She said he had not once come to her to offer ideas or suggestions for how she should run Workforce.

“If he wanted to take it in a different direction, he never communicated that to me,” she said. Howard said Reichert told her during their conversation that he felt like she had poor people skills, but mentioned no specific problems in her official termination letter. The Workforce Development administrator serves at the pleasure of the mayor, and can be removed at will.

Howard’s firing comes nearly three weeks to the day that Kevin DuBose, former director of Macon’s Economic and Community Development Department, resigned. Several city officials have since said that DuBose, who also was an Ellis appointee, was forced out by Reichert’s administration.

Councilman Erick Erickson said that a few weeks ago, after he made a comment during a council meeting that heads need to “start rolling in this city,” he was told that DuBose’s then-pending departure would be followed by more. The administration is going through its outside audit of city finances and taking a close look at departments that are continually flagged, Erickson said.

Workforce Development, like Economic and Community Development and the Macon Coliseum facilities, has been cited by auditors multiple times for operating with little to no oversight from the Finance Department.

Workforce required nearly $200,000 in adjustments to its books during the most recent audit.

“I’m glad to see that the mayor’s office is starting to hold people accountable for chronic, multi-year problems in the audit,” Erickson said. “I hope he doesn’t stop.”

Erickson said it has been difficult for the council to get straight answers from Howard about her department’s activities, and that she could be “extremely combative” with some of his elected colleagues. Howard has most publicly clashed with Councilwoman Elaine Lucas, who in the past has called her ineffective and accused Workforce of not serving enough young people.

Lucas on Wednesday said Workforce had experienced extensive turnover under Howard’s leadership. She never fully presented her budget to council members, so they did not know how money was being spent there, Lucas said, and the office would not always respond to students’ requests for assistance.

Lucas said she hopes that Howard’s firing will allow the department to be reorganized so it can operate more effectively.

“It’s unfortunate for anyone to lose their jobs, especially in these tough times,” Lucas said.

“But I’m looking forward to new leadership ... so that the program can provide services, especially to the youth in the community, as the program was intended to do.”

Howard disputes Lucas’ assessment. She said her office was one of only two in the state that offered a summer program for youth, and that she had to seek outside funding for it through the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Workforce aimed to serve 300 kids each summer, she said, and often had hundreds more on the waiting list.

Howard also said the audit points to nothing that Workforce has done to not adhere to any rules. The department performed far better under her tenure than it did before she got there, she said.

“We turned that department around,” she said.

Another council member, Virgil Watkins, said he was upset to learn that Howard was ousted. Watkins serves on the Workforce board and is chairman of its youth council. He said she was one of the city’s best employees, and questioned the wisdom of firing her now given the number of new resources that are expected through President Obama’s stimulus package.

Howard had been looking into ways Workforce could best take advantage of the money, he said.

“She was always sharp,” Watkins said. “She’s passionate about all the programs.”