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Posted: April 29, 2014 8:58 p.m.

Who’s in charge?

Should the elected county chairman be the top person in charge of making decisions for Newton County’s government?

Commissioners seem to think so, based on last week’s work session, but it’s unclear what that means until commissioners work out the details.

Commissioners didn’t yet reach a solid consensus on who will ultimately do the hiring and firing and who department heads will report to. Those are two areas that will go a long way toward deciding who has the real power.

Our concern is avoiding the current power struggle we’ve had in recent years and continue to hear about. Then-chairman Kathy Morgan had much of her oversight stripped from her in November 2011, when the Board of Commissioners voted to “promote” County Administrator John Middleton to county manager.

Commissioners at the time said they felt they did what they needed to do for the best of the county, but in the wake of the decision, questions arise about who pushes the buttons, as Chairman Keith Ellis phrased it last week.

During last week’s work session, one of the consultants facilitating the meeting remarked that, at least in some ways, it appeared that not much really changed during the switch from county administrator to county manager.

However, the big difference appears to be who is in charge of the administrator or manager (I think we can all agree the title is meaningless at this point): is the board in charge or is the chairman in charge?

It’s the board’s job to set county policy, including continuing to flesh out the informal strategic plan they’ve been working on for the past several months. Those policies and plans give long-term goals county department heads should strive toward. But the chairman is part of the board, despite the fact he can’t vote. What about the topics not discussed by the board? Is the chairman the top policy maker for all other areas?

Ideally, a close collaboration between the chairman and county manager would lead to a free exchange of ideas with the best ones rising to the top. In reality, even the most collaborative of workplaces needs a boss: the person who makes the final call when the staff’s consensus is split and the one’s who’s willing to stand up and be the voice during controversial times.

We agree that this person should be the elected chairman, but we’d also like to see a carefully-crafted set of checks and balances put in place so one person doesn’t have too much power. The board should be the check on the chairman, but the board shouldn’t be involved in the day-to-day decisions of the county. However, if the board is the check on the chairman and hires the county manager, who checks the board? The answer is ultimately the voters, but it could be two to four years before enough board members could be voted out to make a change.

While those complexities must be sorted out, there’s one simple area, we’d like to see kept in mind during this process: salaries.

Commissioner John Douglas brought up the issue, but it didn’t gain any traction as the roles of the chairman and county manager hadn’t really been decided. While the salaries can’t be fully decided until the final roles and responsibilities are set, we still need to think about paying a combined $180,000 for the top two positions. Are those salaries justified? Maybe? Have we done the research to know whether or not they are? The News hasn’t seen any presented or discussed.

No matter which direction we take, this county needs strong leaders, and a strong structure to ensure those leaders can lead and can be overruled when they’re failing to do so.

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