Jim Harrell never planned to run for public office.
Reflecting on his service to Forsyth County, the outgoing District 3 commissioner said it was his “passion for good governance” that led him to seek the post.
“It was a rare privilege to be a public servant and ... to be able to go in there and make a real difference,” Harrell said. “I enjoyed being a public servant, and I found out I was a pretty bad politician.”
Harrell was elected to the commission in 2006, defeating incumbent Jack Conway in the Republican primary.
Today marks the end of his four-year term after a re-election bid came up short this summer. Todd Levent succeeds Harrell on Saturday.
Harrell, the former chairman of the Forsyth County Republican Party, was tapped by his peers to serve as vice chairman of the commission all four years of his term.
Coming into office, Harrell said he had a good knowledge of the issues facing the county. Still, he was surprised at the “depth and breadth” of each matter the commission faced.
His background in aerospace engineering may not have seemed to lend itself to working for the people, but Harrell said the two are more closely related than most would think.
“An engineer’s a problem solver,” said Harrell, a Georgia Tech graduate. “We definitely had some problems to solve.”
One of the most difficult challenges during his time as commissioner was facing the national economic downturn.
The county had to cut its general fund budget from triple to double million digits, but Harrell said Forsyth did a good job of bracing for that storm.
“Hopefully, people will look back and say, ‘Forsyth made it through the really tough, difficult financial times,’” he said.
County Manager Doug Derrer said Harrell, as a member of the finance committee, was an “integral part” in creating the county’s budget.
“The time and attention he dedicated to the budget process was extremely valuable, and helped make this year’s budget process a smooth one,” Derrer said.
One of his most memorable moments, Harrell said, was during the formation of the 2011 budget.
“When I sat in the first budget meeting this year with all the department heads and realized that we had finally rolled out zero-based budgeting in the county,” he said, his face lighting up, “that was cool.”
Harrell also counts transportation improvements across the county as an achievement of the past four years.
He recalled the addition of a stoplight at Hwy. 9 and Majors Road as significant for his constituents, one of whom told him, “If you’re worth a damn, you’ll get that intersection fixed.”
The commission also added a “good bit of infrastructure” and a “good bit of green [space]” during his time in office, Harrell said.
Additional fire stations lowered insurance rates for residents, he said, and also raised Forsyth County’s safety levels.
In District 3 alone, several phases of the popular Big Creek Greenway trail have opened and Fowler Park is expected to debut this winter.
His time on the commission could also be remembered for the county’s purchases of green space through a $100 million parks, recreation and green space bond.
“As the county grows out,” Harrell said, “those will be real jewels for the people to enjoy.”
Looking back on his time, he felt the commission was fortunate to get “an awful lot of things done.”
Fellow Commissioner Jim Boff said he enjoyed working with Harrell during their two years together on the board.
“You couldn’t ask for a more even-keeled, likeable, accommodating person who also was very concerned about the citizenry of the county,” Boff said.
Commissioner Patrick Bell said he also appreciated the efforts of his colleague, with whom he served on the finance committee.
While he and Harrell came from different camps on many issues, Bell said he felt they got along as peers.
“He was always open to listening to me,” Bell said. “Even sometimes when he wouldn’t vote my way, he still would listen.”
Harrell said “it remains to be seen” whether he will stay active in county government, though he quickly added that someone with his passion often finds it hard to stay “totally quiet.”
He will continue working and spending time with his family, to which a fifth grandchild was added on the day of the primary runoff election in August.
“My quip is ‘out with the old and in with the new,’” Harrell said.
He plans to stay at home in Forsyth, which he often and affectionately describes as the “best place to live, work and play.”