John C. Waller, the former Grovetown city administrator, is now serving as the interim city administrator for the City of Thomson. He began work Tuesday. Waller takes over the role from Mike Stewart, who served as the interim city manager in Thomson for several months following the resignation of Frank Etheridge last year. The city hired Donald Toms, who also resigned. So, Stewart came back to Thomson to help the city but had other obligations and could not stay in the roll long term. The city council approved hiring Waller, 56, into the interim position in a called meeting Jan. 21. “I had heard some very positive things about his work in Grovetown, so I just called him,” said Stewart. “When it didn’t work out with Mr. Toms, it didn’t work out with my availability this time I wanted to try to speed up the process of getting somebody in here.” “So I talked further with John, and the mayor had spoken with him, so I broached the idea of maybe talking with the council and they liked him and decided it would be worth bringing him on in an interim basis to see how things go,” added Stewart. Stewart said he would stay as long as needed during the transition. Waller is a retired U.S. Army colonel with decades of leading “highly complex organizations,” according to his resume. He served as the city administrator in Grovetown from May 2017 to August 2020. In that role, Waller’s resume reports he “led staff of over 120 employees providing critical services to a city of 16,000 residents; helped reestablish credibility in city government; while administrator also served as department director and PIO.” Prior to his role as Grovetown city administrator, Waller was the director of planning and community Development for the city from July 2016 to April 2017. Waller resigned his role as city administrator for Grovetown in 2017. The city alleged Waller missed filing an extension with the Georgia EPD on a $25 million wastewater treatment project and reported the city had to pay a $10,000 find. “There was a deadline that we were supposed to meet with the environmental protection division, having to do with the wastewater treatment plant, and it was missed and the result was a fine,” Waller said. “When you’re sitting in a seat like this, you are responsible for what your organization does, or fails to do.” He said there was some angst about it and he spoke with the Grovetown elected officials about it. Waller said he did not want to be the reason that the council could split or the community would be upset. “If there is an issue and people need to say ‘who’s this on?’ it’s on me,” Waller said earlier this week. “At my level I’m not sure that I am personally tracking that individual deadline. There are people that we had that do that. But at the end of the day, it’s on me.” His path to Thomson started just outside Scranton, Penn., where he grew up. From there, he served 27 years in the Army before retiring as a colonel. A younger Waller attended college at a small liberal arts Jesuit university and the head of the chemistry department suggested he pursue two degrees and put them together. He earned a bachelors of science in chemistry and business at the University of Scranton. But that same department chair shared advice that led Waller into the military. “At that time, back in the mid 80s in northeastern Pennsylvania, if you wanted to get ahead as he explained it, you needed to have served in the military because everybody in any position of authority in the 80s had been in either World War II, Korea, or Vietnam,” Waller said. He graduated college and was married with two children and decided to go into the military. He had planned to eventually become an attorney. “Like many people, I had no intention of staying. I would do my three and get out and get a real job,” Waller said. “I went in and absolutely loved it.” Waller started his military career with the 82nd Airborne Division jumping out of airplanes then served with the 1st Calvary Division. He got a call and asked if he wanted to go to graduate school while also teaching chemistry at West Point. He did. Of his 27 years in the military, Waller said one third of those years were spent on a campus either teaching or furthering his education. But, he has also deployed in the field, including during the Gulf War. In addition to his degree from Scranton University, he earned a master of public administration from Augusta State University, a fellowship at MIT for supply chain management, a master of science in chemistry from Lehigh University, and became a certified public manager through the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. He said transitioning from military to government is common. “A lot of folks who are leaving the military end up going into local government. There are an awful lot of transfer skills because you are dealing with people,” Waller said. In his tenure at Grovetown, he visited career days at the elementary school for several years and had to learn to describe in simple terms what a city administrator does. “How do you explain to 8 year olds what a city administrator is? You are a problem solver, that’s what you do,” said Waller. “That’s what leaders in the military do. The higher up you go the more challenging it becomes. Somebody has already solved all the easy problems,” Waller said. How does his experience at the City of Grovetown help him in the interim city administrator role in Thomson? He said Grovetown grew rapidly and the city had not invested in its personnel infrastructure. “You had a lot of great people working really hard, but they had not been able to keep up with the growth and the pace,” Waller said. He said after talking with Thomson Mayor Kenneth Usry and Stewart, he sees that Thomson faces some similar challenges. “They have some of the similar challenges of small communities where a lot of time you get people in and people out. Hopefully my military experience and my fourth-and-a-half years in Grovetown, three-and- a-half of which as administrator, what I would like to do is bring some stability to the staff, provide structure, and make sure the employees understand they are listened to, supported and heard,” added Waller. How can he help Thomson benefit from Fort Gordon? Waller said in Grovetown he had regular phone calls with the garrison commander to make sure the leadership of the city and the leadership of the post were working together. “I tried to re-establish a relationship between the city and the post,” said Waller. “I am perfectly happy to do the same thing here.” “It makes an awful lot of sense to form relationships,” he added. “It benefits everybody.” Waller and his wife live in Evans, but he plans to be in Thomson and being involved in events and celebrations. “I plan on being here and being as much in the community as I can be without physically living here,” he explained.
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