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Posted: February 15, 2014 9:00 p.m.

What kind of county government do we need?

Newton County citizens recently learned of the unexpected action of the Board of Commissioners (BOC) to appoint an "assistant county manager," which in fact is the new "county manager in waiting" who will replace John Middleton upon his retirement sometime this year. Mr. Tom Garrett, the person selected, may be a good candidate for this job, but the process and timing of his appointment raises serious questions about the genuine commitment of our current commissioners to effectively manage our county.

A little background is in order. In November 2011, the BOC took the controversial step of promoting county administrator John Middleton to county manager, thereby giving him the responsibility for day-to-day operation of county government. In effect, Mr. Middleton became the chief executive officer (CEO) of the county, removing that function from our elected commission chairman. That was a highly questionable action by the three commissioners who voted for it because the county’s legal charter clearly gives that responsibility to the elected chairman. Infighting between the commissioners and chairman obviously caused that action.

After the 2012 election of new BOC members Levie Maddox and John Douglas, and new Chairman Keith Ellis, there was a reasonable expectation by voters that the new commission rightly would return the job of running the county to Chairman Ellis, who appears entirely capable of doing that. That did not happen, so Mr. Middleton has continued to function as county manager. Chairman Ellis reportedly has supervisory control over only county road maintenance, the vehicle fleet and county engineering operations. Hope was kindled again when Mr. Middleton announced his retirement and the commission publicly broadcast its intention of bringing in a consultant and studying the county’s future organizational structure. Unfortunately, their decision to appoint a new "county manager in waiting" signals that there is no intention to make significant changes. And, the unprofessional, back- room process used to appoint Mr. Garrett raises further questions about the intentions of the BOC.

Having a full-time elected chairman and a full- time county manager was troubling from the start and is even more so now that it is being continued indefinitely. Newton is one of only two counties out of 159 in Georgia that has both a full-time county chairman and a county manager. Only six others have a full-time elected chairman and a county administrator. Newton’s chairman is paid about $94,244 per year, and Mr. Middleton is paid $85,987 to be county manager. Added to those costs, at least temporarily, is the $82,316 salary of an assistant county manager (salaries do not include benefits). Paying for multiple people to do the same job is extremely troubling to taxpayers. However, of more long-term concern is the inefficiency and confusion this structure brings to county operations. In addition, unpredictable decision-making by county officials hurts our efforts to attract new industries and businesses to Newton County.

It’s hard to claim there are no problems with our current county management structure. Recent news reports about county contract mismanagement and resulting lawsuits are just one example of the need for improvements. Voters need to insist that our BOC either return the CEO duties to our elected commission chairman, or move to a lawful form of the part-time county commission-county manager form of government. Our current "hybrid" system of a full-time chairman and full-time county manager is too costly and inefficient to be continued any longer. And, voters need to be skeptical of minor department management changes now being discussed by the BOC. That is "putting lipstick on the pig"- a common government diversion tactic when voters demand changes.

Larry McSwain retired from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resource Division after 32 years and was a member of the Middle Ocmulgee Regional Water Council, which studied the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir, from 2009 to 2011. He is currently an environmental consultant.

*Note: Data on salaries taken from the county records or from articles in the Covington News. County government information came from ACCG.

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