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Jefferson County rebuilds reputation with help from top management

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Tony Petelos, Jefferson County manager (left) and Walter Jackson, chief deputy county manager, talk before a pre-Commission committee meeting in Birmingham, Ala., Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. (Photo by Mark Almond)
By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For the Birmingham Times

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Tony Petelos and Walter Jackson have a lot in common. One thing: they both grew up with ink-stained fingers. The Jefferson County manager and his chief deputy, respectively, were paperboys before their careers in public service.

Petelos’ paper route was on Avenues C, D, and E in downtown Ensley.

“Sunday’s were tough,” Petelos recalled. “We had to get up at 3 in the morning. Actually, I was helping my brother. He had the route. On Sunday, it took two of us to go.”

Jackson served about 90 customers on the Southside, on 16th Street South, which is now Sixth Avenue South.

“From sixth grade to the end of my freshman year at [Ullman High School], [my bicycle] had a big basket [on the front] and saddle bags on the back,” Jackson said, recalling his newspaper-delivery days.

Jackson bought school clothes with his earnings. Petelos’ pay went for his family.

“My father died at a young age, and my mother had five kids at home,” he recalled. “We used that money to help pay the bills.”

Excellent Fit

These days, Petelos, 64, and Jackson, 74, lead the team in the county manager’s office. Another thing they have in common: keeping Jefferson County headed in the right direction.

Petelos, a former state lawmaker who worked for two governors and later served as mayor of Hoover, was appointed manager in 2011 not long before the county filed the then-largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Recalling when he was approached by one of the county commissioners about the job, Petelos said, “My first reaction to him was, ‘Are you crazy?’”

Petelos, then the mayor of Hoover, told his wife Teresa about the conversation.

“She didn’t even hesitate,” he recalled. “She said, ‘You need to do it. You’ve got the political knowledge and … [know] the landscape. You know the county. You know the players. You know the problems. You’re the right choice.’”

At his side, nearly from day one, has been Jackson, a former legislative lobbyist.

“When you take on big responsibilities, you have to have a team,” Petelos said. “Walter is the number-one person on that team. When I took this job, Walter was already here. He had a head start, and I thought he would be a good fit. He was an excellent fit, in fact, and we’ve been together ever since.”

Petelos said he first met Jackson during a 2009 meeting of area mayors at the Bright Star restaurant in Bessemer. The previous commission had cancelled all through-road agreements with local cities, and Jackson talked about Jefferson County, challenges the county faced, and what the cities could do.

Jackson was chief of staff for Commissioner Sandra Little Brown when Petelos was appointed, and the newly formed team developed something else in common, according to Brown: “I think they have a heart for Jefferson County.”

“I can’t talk about [Petelos] without talking about [Jackson] also; he complements [Petelos]. Both of them are very knowledgeable,” she said.

Challenges

Walter Jackson, Jefferson County chief deputy county manager is shown during a pre-Commission committee meeting in Birmingham, Ala., Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. (Photo by Mark Almond)

While the two have successfully worked to help get the county back to full health, each has had to battle his own physical ailments.

After a meeting at county-owned Cooper Green Mercy Hospital in 2014, Petelos said, “Something was going on, and I knew it. … I said, ‘I’ll just go to urgent care.’ They ran some tests and [told me I needed to] go see [my] urologist.”

“Yeah, Cooper Green [staffers] were the ones who put me on the right track,” he recalled.

As Petelos battled bladder cancer, Jackson took the reins of the County Manager’s Office. He could relate to the issues Petelos faced because Jackson himself had a bout with cancer; he is now six years in remission. Jackson had another health issue, too, liver disease, which he braved before receiving a transplant.

“I feel real good [now],” Jackson said. “I was very sick. I really didn’t know how sick I was.”

That’s yet another thing Petelos and Jackson have in common: they are aware of the importance of health care for all Jefferson County residents, including the indigent population.

Cooper Green has never closed, Petelos said.

“All we did was transition from an emergency-care to an urgent-care facility, and we transitioned from in-patient care to contracting that work out to other hospitals,” he said. “We’re providing better services today than when we were struggling as a hospital.”

Jackson said: “This commission is concerned about services for the indigent, all citizens of the county but especially the indigent. We have a special responsibility legislated to us by the Indigent Care Fund, [which is generated by a percentage of the county sales tax revenue].

“Both Tony and I, because of where we grew up and the circumstances in which we grew up, have an understanding about and compassion for people who, some, are in the same condition in which we grew up.”

Tony Petelos, Jefferson County manager (left) and Walter Jackson, chief deputy county manager, pose in Birmingham, Ala., Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. (Photo by Mark Almond)

Rebuilding

Now that Petelos and Jackson are healthy, the rebuilding of the county continues—something with which Petelos is familiar from running a construction company for 30 years.

“In construction, you’re either building something or rebuilding something,” he said. “We did the Fish Market downtown. That’s one of the last jobs I did. We took an old warehouse and converted it into a restaurant.”

Petelos said he relished taking the most difficult jobs that nobody wanted.

“We were a very small company,” he said. “I knew my limitations, but the more difficult the job, the more exciting it was to do.”

Petelos said he always appreciated challenging construction jobs. Despite not having to handle a hammer, his task with Jefferson County provides such a challenge.

Influx of Talent

Petelos credits an influx of talent from across the country for strengthening county services. He cited Human Resources Director Michelle Rodrigues, who is from Dallas, Texas; Chief Financial Officer John Henry, from Washington, D.C.; and Cooper Green Director Armika Berkley, from Memphis, Tenn.

“Roads and Transportation Director Cal Markert is from Baldwin County,” he said. “We’re bringing in new talent from all over the country and rebuilding Jefferson County into a county we can be proud of again.”

Still, few know the county better than Petelos and Jackson—one more thing they have in common.

“One of the reasons I’m still here and [Jackson] is still here with all we’ve been through is because we’re both lifelong residents of this community,” Petelos said. “I feel like with all the changes, if an outsider had been brought in, they would have never survived.”