John Nissel has sat beside 911 dispatchers as they calmly handled incoming emergency calls. He’s been out on home-building inspections with code enforcers. To learn about Jefferson County’s farmland preservation program, he’s ridden bumpy rides on the back of a pickup truck.
Almost weekly, Nissel has been meeting with the county’s technology chief to understand what information systems the county government has and might need to run better and cheaper.
A long-ago Shepherd College grad fondly returning to Jefferson County, Nissel is learning the nuts and bolts of his new job as county administrator, the top staff manager for county government. His first day on the job was Feb. 16.
“The commission made it very clear when I came in: They said get up to speed in three months,” Nissel recalled his five county commission bosses telling him. “I said, ‘OK, I’m going to dive in headfirst.’”
With easy confidence that comes from polished experience, he’s been gladly getting acquainted with county government over the past dozen weeks. His days at the office typically start at 7 or 7:30 a.m., where he puts in 10 or so hours.
Along with his ventures out to visit various departments and agencies, his workdays fill with appointments, emails and phone calls, staff meetings and emerging projects, as well as mundane administrative chores. A recurring, time-consuming priority is providing county commissioners with the background information and documents they need to prepare for their at least twice monthly, and usually more, public meetings.
In spare time on the side, Nissel said he’s doing some background report reading, such as the recent Fitch & Associates consulting report on consolidating the county’s fragmented ambulance service operations under the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency.
“I’m just doing a lot of leg work with that,” he said. “I’ll leave all the decisions up to the elected officials. I’ll stay neutral on that whole thing.”
From his first day, Nissel jumped into learning the county commission’s annual government budgeting process, which was underway to settle a new $28 million general budget and a $4.5 million capital budget funding for all the county departments and agencies.
His early self-orientation efforts have included a few, sometimes subtle, changes he initiated. For example, he immediately renamed the county’s maintenance department, he said, to the facilities and fleet management department. That department’s employees, he explained, “manage a lot of fleet”—administrator talk for vehicles—“and I didn’t think they were getting enough recognition for that.”
Nissel, who previously managed 650 vehicles for Montgomery County, said he eventually wants to review the department’s vehicles for streamlining opportunities is on his agenda. “We need to really dig in on what we have in the inventory and how we’re managing that,” he said.
His other early goals include making the county government’s website easier to navigate. He said he wants to make more information accessible to the public.
Improving the satisfaction of the county workforce is another broader goal, Nissel said. “We want to create a happy culture here. That’s key,” he said. “A lot of people leave their job because—not because of money—but because they’re not having a good experience at their job. We need to change that.”
“We want to welcome people in,” he said. “We want to make sure that they’re coming into a great organization and that they’re going to give us 100 percent. We’re going to give a 100 percent back. That, to me, is critical.”
As county administrator Nissel directly oversees a staff of 120 employees, which doesn’t include independently elected offices of the Sheriff’s Office or the County Clerk’s Office. But his budget and staff now pale in comparison with his previous responsibilities before he retired as a deputy director for operations for the Montgomery County Parks Department.
While as the park system’s deputy director, he oversaw divisions that operated with a $63 million budget for the upkeep and management of 424 public parks over 37,000 acres. The facilities he managed included golf courses, nature centers, splash parks and ice skating rinks. They included about 110 tennis courts, 155 basketballs court and over 570 ballfields.
With his park service background, Nissel said he sees preserving, expanding and enhancing the county’s park and recreation amenities as an exciting challenge. That challenge, he said, is part of several efforts necessary—such as improving reliable Internet access—to prepare the county for inevitable population and development growth.
He also believes local business and job growth will be important to allow more people to work closer to where they live in the county.
The son of a Maryland circuit court judge, Nissel’s previous responsibilities included navigating the priorities, personalities and power players of a parks commission, a county council and a county executive. The budget process he worked through involved various layers and steps, starting in August every year before ending sometime in April.
“The budgeting process in Montgomery County was very complicated,” he recalled.
Nissel credits his success in serving multiple masters by listening and remaining open and transparent with everyone. His commission, council and executive bosses knew him well, he said. “They knew exactly where I came from. I was very transparent, didn’t hide anything.”
As county administrator, Nissel said he wants to schedule open-door sessions for citizens to come and ask him questions about their county government. Any questions on their minds, he said.
“If I don’t know the answer, I’ll tell you I don’t know the answer and get it for you,” he said. “We owe it to our constituents to get them so familiar with how the government works that when they ask us questions, they have half their answer already in their right hip pocket.”
Nissel said he plans to regularly attend community events and mix with other civic leaders and citizens. “My goal is to make myself as available as I humanly can,” he said.
That availability and openness fit his overall management style and philosophy, he said. Employees are on the top of Nissel’s list of priorities as they were with the Montgomery County’s park system.
“My philosophy is management by walking around—MBWA,” he said. “People kind of laugh at that, but staff is very important to me. … Tear all the bricks and mortar down, and you should still be able to run your organization.”
For anyone interested in leading an organization, Nissel recommends a biography of Abraham Lincoln by David Herbert Donald that he’s currently reading.
Nissel said he won’t be a big follower of social media commentary as county administrator. “I can’t be bothered with that too much because I don’t want to get sidetracked,” he said. “I just I keep my nose forward.”
On more nuts and bolts of personnel matters, Nissel said he wants to increase training on all kinds of topics and areas, from customer service to defensive driving to sexual harassment.“Those things are really, really important for a good work culture,” he said. “It’s important that we train, train, train and that we never stop training.”
Nissel said he’s been encouraged and energized after meeting and getting to know the county’s current employees. “They’re very devoted to their jobs,” he said. “And I think they want to see great things happening in county government.”
Reviewing employee job descriptions is necessary to make sure they’re up to date and aligned with what staff members are actually doing, Nissel said. Improving the job interview and orientation process for new employees is important, he added. Ensuring the county government is open to developing a more culturally diverse workforce is another personnel priority, he said.
“We should be looking down deep in our work pool and see that we’ve got good diversity here,” he said. “There are pockets of population around here that I don’t know if we’re really identifying to come to work for us.”
That mindset for creating strong work teams runs through his household. His wife, Maureen Dougherty, who earned a doctorate in recreation and parks resource management from West Virginia University, is a corporate trainer, motivational speaker and team builder.
When Nissel, now 60, was preparing to retire from the Montgomery parks system, ready to ditch his long commute, he and Dougherty began looking at different areas to retire. With a son living in North Carolina and a married daughter who’s a new mom in Maryland, they looked up and down the East Coast. Their attention kept turning back to Shepherdstown, where they first met at Shepherd College in the 1980s (before it became a university in 2004) and kept returning for visits with friends still living there.
With their Yorkie named Murphy, Nissel and his wife are now building a home outside Shepherdstown, which they hope will be finished before the end of the summer.
Until then, you could likely catch Nissel, the former Civil War battlefield guide, reading one of his history books, hiking and biking the area’s trails, rummaging in some dusty antique shop or fly fishing on the Potomac. You also might find him heading somewhere new with his wife in their motorhome.
“Whenever we get a chance for jumping in the RV, we’re going,” he said. “The best way to see this country is behind the windshield.”