PROFILE FROM FRONT LINES: BRIAN POKORNY
Editor’s Note: Reprinted from this week’s Freeman’s Journal & Hometown Oneonta newspapers, this is the first of “From The Front Lines” profiles of key players in our community’s fight against the coronavirus.
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – A few years ago, Otsego County government was planning a $1.2 million microwave loop – down Route 28, up Route 33 – to connect its Main Street headquarters with The Meadows and county jail.
“I got to thinking a bit,” said the county’s IT director, Brian Pokorny. “I knew we could put fiber optics in for cheaper than that, and we would have unlimited bandwidth.”
Instead of stringing the wire, “Why can’t we bury it?” he asked Ron Tiderencel, the county highway superintendent at the time.
And so it was. Tiderencel’s highway crew dug the ditch from 197 Main to The Meadows, laid a culvert, and a fiber optics company pulled the wire through.
Stringing wire was going to cost $700,000; the culvert option ended up costing $300,000. “That project paid for itself in three years on just phone lines alone,” said Pokorny.
So should it be any surprise that last week, when IBM announced worldwide it was rolling out a novel AI voice-recognition product, “Watson Assistant for Citizens,” that Otsego County and Brian Pokorny were mentioned in the press release?
IBM quoted Pokorny as saying IBM’s product “will be a great resource for the county’s residents and will help alleviate call-center volume to allow county employees to dedicate efforts elsewhere.”
Think Bassett’s Coronavirus Hotline, 607-547-5555, which processed 1,000 calls on the critical weekend of March 13-14.
Plus, it’s free for the first 90 days.
In IBM’s announcement, Otsego County was listed along with Austin, Texas; Spain’s province of Andalusia, and the Czech Republic and Poland’s ministries of health.
Pokorny called the fiber-optics adventure “the highlight of my career.” He didn’t anticipate the coronavirus and the state of emergency that requires citizens – and county representatives, too – to maintain “social distancing.”
For county government to function, people – the county reps, the department heads, the task forces formed to explore healthcare and economic impacts – have to talk to each other.
Over the past year, Pokorny had experimented with Zoom, a video-conference-call product, to connect county Treasurer Allen Ruffles, serving with the Army Reserves in Djibouti, with the county board’s budget committee.
In early March, “watching the news, I started seeing this stuff going on – colleges closing, the talk of students remotely taking courses,” he said. “I thought, we better get prepared.”
Laptops could make or break a communications strategy, so the day after Friday, March 13 – when President Trump and Governor Cuomo declared emergencies – “the first thing I did was reach out to our vendors. I ordered 50.
“The supply chains: They were running out,” he said. “When I got to the office Monday, I got notification from two major vendors: They were out.”
Because of his fast reaction, however, 40 of the 50 laptops were en route.
The next week, he tested out Zoom at county Rep. Meg Kennedy’s Administration Committee meeting, connecting elected officials and department heads.
By the county board’s April 1 meeting, he had turned to Facebook Live, connecting the board’s chambers at 197 Main with all 14 reps, from Keith McCarty in East Springfield to Ed Frazier in Unadilla.
The board completed its business in near-record time.
Pokorny, son of Ronald and Linda Pokorny, was born in Cooperstown and raised there with two brothers, Michael and Shawn, and sister Jennifer Mickle, graduating from Cooperstown Central School in 1988 and SUNY Cobleskill in 1991, majoring in computer science.
His dad, now deceased, was a computer science professor at Cobleskill. “We were probably the first kids on the block with a computer in our home,” he recalled. “I started programming when I was 10 years old. I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps.”
After Cobleskill, he joined his father’s Cooperstown company, Micro Computer Software – before you could order Dell and Gateway computers over the Internet, you would buy computers retail, and people like Brian would install them for you.
“One day, my father said, ‘You should take this Civil Service exam,’” said the son. He doesn’t remember really wanting to work for the county, “but out of respect for my father, I took the test” and was hired.
He thought to himself, “I’m going to be out of here in a year, move onto something better.”
But a co-worker, Laurie Dower, challenged him: “No, you’re going to be a lifer. I can tell.”
“Twenty-four years later,” said Pokorny, “I’m in it for the long haul.”
Along the way, he and wife Sue, living in the Village of Milford, raised three children, Andrew, Brian Ross and Mariah. Granddaughter Jessalyn Kraham recently joined the family.
About 10 years ago, former Milford Mayor Sabine Curry sounded him out about running for office. Six years went by, and she approached him again: “We have a trustee who’s not going to run again.”
He served for two years as trustee, and is now in his second term as mayor, and an activist one: investing in the village’s Wilber Park, founding farmers’ market and, last year, paving side streets for the first time in 50 years.
He describes himself as shy, but time and again, he gets talked into something and before he knows it he’s fully involved.
And that’s happening at the county. “There’s a group of people, and they are team players. They just go and do it,” Pokorny said.
He praised board chairman David Bliss and Vice Chair Kennedy. “The support from them is a rare thing to see,” he said. “It’s not employer, employee. It’s colleagues. We’re all at the table together on the same level, comfortable, getting things done.”