When popular Pam Tucker alleged she had to quit as Columbia County’s emergency management director earlier this year because of hostility from County Administrator Scott Johnson, her supporters showed up at the county commission meeting with “I (heart) Pam” T-shirts.
Don’t be looking for any “I (heart) Scott” shirts anytime soon. But twin sheriff’s reports this week that failed to prove Tucker’s case – as well as testimony from Johnson and testimonials from commission Chairman Ron Cross – leave open the very real possibility that Johnson himself has been wronged.
There’s little doubt their management styles clashed titanically. In an interview, Johnson described his approach as “analytical” and hers as “emotional.” Indeed, reports claim Tucker was easily aggrieved, by such things as being last on an alphabetical list of meeting attendees, or not having a seat of prominence at a group table.
But in a switch, it was Johnson who became emotional Thursday while talking about the lost sleep, lost friends and public backlash, including death threats, he says he’s endured since being accused by Tucker – whose high-profile job, charm and attentive image-building has made her the most well-known and well-liked figure in the county.
If it sounds like we have sympathy for both of them, we do. It’s just that sympathy, or merely empathy, for Johnson hasn’t been all that in vogue.
At a press conference accompanying the sheriff’s reports’ release Wednesday, Chairman Cross was in high dudgeon about the animus directed toward Johnson – calling it “nothing short of a crime.” Cross said Johnson is “not the gruff individual some people think” – ticking off acts of kindness he knows Johnson has performed, including a $100 tip on a $30 meal for a struggling waitress; helping put up a battered woman and child; and starting a Christmas fund for a needy county worker.
Yet Johnson has had his moments of controversy, which have included a profanity-laced argument with an employee – and a phone call in which he threatened to deny county business to a banker who had criticized him in public. And the sheriff’s report recalls Johnson admitting to Tucker that “he realized there were some things he needed to change about himself.”
Tucker, meanwhile, is depicted as unable or unwilling to acknowledge shortcomings – even boasting during an attempted coaching session that “I am a great manager … a born leader.”
Cross questioned whether a good leader would say such a thing, and that while she was a great emergency management director, she was a “very narcissistic person” whom staff resented for her self-promoting, often with information they provided her.
On that last point, we would’ve encouraged others to perhaps look at it differently: Yes, Tucker put herself forward, but that allowed her to field a lot of public complaints, concerns and inquiries that would’ve had other county workers’ phones buzzing. Maybe that could be seen as a good thing.
For her part, Tucker says “attempts to paint me as ‘fragile’ are funny. Ask my sisters who grew up with me.”
As unfavorably as the sheriff’s reports sometimes portray Tucker – and as sympathetic a figure as Johnson has emerged from the ordeal – Tucker the private citizen will no doubt remain a tour-de-force. On Thursday she spoke to the Columbia County Kiwanis Club, and her announced candidacy for Cross’ commission seat next year has begun with a ready-made swath of grassroots support.
How interesting it would be, and not necessarily in a good way, if Cross decided to run for re-election against her. He has yet to announce.
Whoever runs, and whoever wins, this unsavory, childish and costly episode should persuade them that it should never happen again.