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Posted: October 16, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Changes to local government

Changes are coming to county government structures all over the state, and I have made myself a student of those initiatives. As Commissioners, we are educated regarding the Five Forms of Government in Georgia by the Carl Vinson Institute of UGA and the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia. Some changes are the customary "tweaks" for efficiencies and changes due to growth. Many of them involve the institution of a county administrator or county manager form of government in which an administrator or manager is hired by the sitting Board of Commissioners to run all the functions and services of a county government and having that position report to the board. In my opinion, this constitutes a change of the form of government itself, without voter approval.

As Newton County Commission Chairman and Chief Administrative Officer as defined by our charter, I have worked closely with county department heads and employees to restructure several departments with the goal of improving both efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of services as set forth by the Board of Commissioners. Under my direction, we will continue to look for efficiencies of operation while providing professional service. This economy and the restrictions of our budget have demanded nothing less.

It appears that movement on the part of some district commissioners across our state to change the job description of a staff position by removing many of the responsibilities of the Chairman to manage the day- to-day functions of county government and transfer those duties to a new job description for the Administrative Assistant or Manager. This would invest in a non-elected county employee much of the power and authority now granted to a duly elected Chairman, making that employee responsible only to the commissioners who hired him or her. As far as I can tell, the "plan" for accomplishing this change in county governance has been handled behind closed doors in executive session as a "personnel" matter. You the voters were not a party to and have no input or vote on the matter.

In many counties, stress and chaos have followed when policy has been changed by effectively reallocating duties of a chairman to the commissioners who hire the county manager. Jasper County has had eight managers and Jackson County has hired four since implementing this type of government. Day-to-day decisions must wait for a consensus vote of the commissioners. Department heads and employees essentially answer to, for example, five managers instead of one. The result is an ineffective and time-delayed procedure for handling the operations of county government. This creates a situation where individual influences may usurp the majority vote. I am told the average term of a county administrator or manager reporting to the Board of Commissioners is three years. Even jaded observers might conclude the action is basically a power grab without voter input.

Newton County's charter provides for a balance in power between the offices of the Chairman and the Board of Commissioners. The board is responsible for hiring the county attorney and the county clerk and has the authority to overturn the chairman on any decision, even those involving personnel or policy within 30 days by a public vote of at least three commissioners. The board is given the authority to make the policy that the chairman is mandated to carry out. The chairman is given the authority of the day to day administration of the county and his acts shall be binding.

It is my opinion that any change in our form of government should have public input. At the least it should include a citizen's committee to study the five forms of government in Georgia; this committee should evaluate our form of governance and make recommendations for change if needed to the Board of Commissioners. That would be no small task and should take as much as 24 months to complete if done effectively. Then any adjustment or change should be placed as a resolution on the ballot for voter approval. PersonaIly, I prefer our current form of government. It mirrors the form of governance of the State of Georgia. It defines the duties and provides checks and balances between the Chairman and Board of Commissioners in which both parties are responsible to the voters. Quite frankly, it is our job to work as a team in the best interest of the county.

One of these "job descriptions" to discuss the restructure and job duties for administrative officer will be on the BOC agenda on Tuesday, Oct. 18, and I will insist on having a public discussion and vote on the proposal. It is not in the public's best interest for such action to occur behind closed doors. It would be far more responsible, I believe, for the public to hear and understand all duties assigned to the administrative office of the county. This position is one of the most powerful non-elected positions in our county government.

Please join me at this board meeting at 7 p.m. at the Historic Courthouse to let the commissioners know that you want input into this decision.


Kathy Morgan is theNewton County chairman. She can be reached at kathy.morgan@co.newton.ga.us

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