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Posted: November 4, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Something's up around here

If you think you elected a commission chair three years ago as the county Chief Executive Officer and Chief Administrative Officer, think again.  By all accounts, three district commissioners plan to strip the administrative duties from the duly elected commission chair and vest them in a hired, unelected administrative position more than a year before the chair’s first term ends. 

The move would essentially change Newton’s governance to something akin to a county manager system in which a hired professional carries out the administrative functions of county government. And by the way, in the plan being pushed, these duties would go to a position for which funding was cut to balance the budget.  

There are certainly arguments favoring county manager systems, and many counties around Georgia have made the transition in recent years.  I can’t say here how those transitions were accomplished, but it would seem that any departure from a long-standing governance mode should include study of what works and what doesn’t and the ordinances needed to make a county manager system operate efficiently and with the best interests of the entire county in mind, not just the wishes of three district commissioners.  Without citizen study, input and response, the three commissioners said to be aligned behind this change in county government apparently think they can disenfranchise two-fifths of Newton County’s voters without even a tip of the hat.

How is this possible, you ask?  Can three district commissioners — with the blessing of the county attorney, it must be assumed — just up and change our horses in midstream?  To use a popular phrase of recent vintage, “you betcha.” State law allows it.  But just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s right or fair to leave the rest of us out of the picture. 

There’s a work session Monday at 7 p.m. in the Historic Courthouse for the commissioners to discuss this proposal. Don’t get excited, however.  Public debate or comment won’t be allowed. They’ll just be talking to each other and with the county attorney. Still, you’re at least invited to watch the proceedings.

If these three commissioners proceed with their plan as now understood, the actual vote would take place at the next regularly scheduled board meeting Tuesday, Nov. 15, at 7 p.m.  The only time you’ll have to make a comment will be at the end of the meeting when the public is allowed to speak. 

The county chair has made known plans to seek re-election in 2012 and has said she will call for a study of a county manager form of government. It may very well be the way the county should move, she says, and she could support it, but not without significant study of what works and doesn’t work in other counties, without a determination of what laws or ordinances are required to get the most efficiency out of a county manager and a clear understanding of the organizational flow of a county government run by a manager who reports to — well, exactly to whom should this person report?  A simple majority of the board? That majority could change from issue to issue, creating instability and lack of accountability. From whom would the public seek redress?  The county manager? Or would the public have to call on three separate district commissioners to get a hearing on an issue? 

You’ve got to wonder about the timing here. Why change the way the county is run in the middle of the chairman’s term? Hercule Poirot might call it suspicious. Why plot to deny the public a say in how this county is to be managed and who’s to be responsible? Right now, they know who’s responsible and that is a chair they are free to re-elect or reject in an election. This chairman’s tenure has been rocky with this board. Many call the county dysfunctional for many reasons. The economy has forced hard decisions, and there’s been a decided rift between the board and the chair over how to manage county functions in a down economy that’s required layoffs and huge departmental budget cuts. Methinks there’s more to it. 

Mark your calendars for the work session Monday at 7 p.m. and the regular commission meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15. A show of public interest could be enough to derail this train and put the process back on the right track.  

 

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She chairs the Newton Advisory Committee.

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