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Keeling bounces back

Jeff Keeling may be out, but he’s not down.
In fact, Keeling says that even as he was losing his job as Washington County’s communications director he knew that somehow everything would work out for the best.
It appears Keeling was right. He has already landed a position with Eastern Eight Community Development Corporation, a non-profit organization that offers affordable housing solutions for the eight counties of Upper East Tennessee.
“I’m glad that it’s worked out like it has,” Keeling said. “We just sent a kid off to college and it would have been tough.”
Keeling found himself jobless when the Washington County Commission voted to slash the funding for his job, along with several other line items, from the budget. While many of those items have been returned to the budget, funding for Keeling’s job was not.
It was a tough pill to swallow, but Keeling says his faith has kept him from feeling bitter.
“I knew that whatever happened in this situation, even before it officially hit, that I could trust God to take care of me and my family.”
Despite the outcome, Keeling says he has no regrets about his decision to accept the newly-created communications job with the county.
“It was probably my recognition of Mayor (Dan) Eldridge’s faith, his perspective and his world view that really prompted me to want to take on the job,” Keeling said, “and I think the vision that both Dan and I had for the job were well on the way of being realized.”
The Communications Director position was “obviously a new thing for Washington County government,” Keeling says, and the job became a hot button very early in Eldridge’s term of office.
“Because it’s new and it’s change, there are elements of it (the job) that are definitely difficult for some people to accept. I hope that I endured the birth pains. I hope that eight months from now I’ll be able to observe a person in that job being able to do all those things that are so important, without the controversy and the tensions that existed for a large portion of my time there.”
Keeling described his job as having three basic elements: communications, community relations plus policy support and research.
“It was almost like an assistant city manager’s position,” Keeling said.
While in the job, Keeling says he communicated with both the media and directly with the taxpayers and citizens through the county website, while communicating internally within the county government structure.
He admits to having “a pretty significant volume of work” in community relations in the aftermath of tornadoes that ripped through the county during the summer. “We pulled resources together and did everything we could to show the various parts of the county that the county government wants to help,” Keeling said.
He was also involved with arranging a partnership with Milligan College to provide free tax assistance to the community as well as working extensively with the public records commission and the archives project. He recommended the electronic transmission of meeting packets and mailings as a cost-saving initiative and says he hopes that another of his suggestions – going to a digital phone system – will be considered as another way to save money.
But all of that will require change, and change is never easy.
“I think that the public element of this kind of a job makes it fairly likely that whoever sits in that (communications) position may see their tenure linked to that of the elected official who hired them. It doesn’t have to be that way.
“I would have hoped to have stayed at least three more years…and I hope that Dan will consider being mayor for more than four years.
“Maybe I was just naïve, but I figured I had at least four years in this job.”
If the funding is returned to the budget later this month and if the job were to be re-offered to Keeling, would he return?
The answer is a soft “no.”
“I wouldn’t consider coming back right now,” Keeling said.
“That is based not on bitterness, but a certain amount of wariness because of the way things happened and how recently it happened.
“If they put it (funding for the job) back in on October 29, what’s to say they won’t look at eliminating the line item in the next fiscal year? But I hope that’s not going to be the way things are with that position.”
Whatever the outcome, Keeling says he “simply can’t afford to take that chance this year.”
“I’m a guy with a family and a life. I’m not just a line item.”