After years of discussions and shifting responsibilities, the Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) voted 4-1 to approve enabling legislation, officially changing the county’s 50-year-old charter.
District 4 Commissioner J. C. Henderson voted against the change.
The current charter makes an elected chair responsible for the day-to-day administration of the county. The new charter would make a county manager responsible for administration, while the elected chair would become the political face of the county, advocating for it locally, regionally and nationally.
The vote on the legislation followed the presentation of the final draft of the proposed charter by Jenny Carter, an attorney with the W. T. Craig law firm in Covington. (You can see the draft at covnews.com )
Work on charter begins in fall
Carter, who has been working on the project since early fall, said the enabling legislation, also known as the charter, was a skeletal outline of how the county government would operate. Specifics could be handled by ordinance, for example, removing the job description for the county manager from the charter and adopting it through a policy or ordinance.
“Once something is in here [the enabling legislation], we want to make sure it’s something this and future boards can maintain,” she said. “The county has some outdated rules and procedures. This sets a framework without limiting the board.”
District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz said, “Based on conversations we’ve had since the last session and with what Mr. Jarrard [of the Jarrard and Davis Law Firm, which serves as the county’s legal counsel] said, this document needs to stand the test of time. This document is a skeleton outline with specifics handled through ordinances.”
Henderson objected to changing the form of government, saying it needed to be put to the vote of the citizens. “We are giving a county manager powers that citizens have no control over. We need to be careful who we’re giving power to.
“The citizens of Newton County can make right decisions,” he said. “If they don’t like what I do, they can take it to the polls.”
Impact of 2011 changes
The decision about changing who has ultimate authority in the county was not put to a vote of the citizens four years ago, when three then-commissioners – Henderson, Tim Fleming and Mort Ewing — approved a motion 3-to-2-vote to strip all powers but oversight of the roads and bridges from then County Chair Kathy Morgan.
At the time, Morgan argued the motion would alter the form of the county’s government. Then County Attorney W. T. “Tommy” Craig disagreed, saying the move altered the chain of command but not the form of government.
Since then, the county seems to have been caught in a quagmire over who had ultimate authority to make decisions and hire and fire staff — the elected chair or the county manager.
Finally, in 2014, the BOC created a Citizens Committee to study and make recommendations on the county’s future form of government.
In September last year, the Form of Government Citizens’ Committee, chaired by Ronnie Cowan, made its recommendations. (See story “BOC hears recommendations from committee on organizational changes,” at http://www.covnews.com/archives/60421/.)
Those recommendations included making the elected chair the chief executive officer for the county, serving as the official liaison to other governments, agencies, industrial business prospects, and civic organizations. Responsibility for the operational supervisory and most financial administration would be transferred to the county manager,
The draft of the enabling legislation seemed to follow those recommendations.
Following the work session on Jan. 7, the BOC held a special called meeting. They voted 4-to-1, with Henderson voting against, to approve the new government legislation.
Ellis, who stated he did not support the motion, cast a symbolic vote against it. Earlier, he told the BOC he would tell the county's legislative delegation to reject the Board's action and send the legislation back to the board with instructions to put the issue on a ballot so residents could vote on it.
Sims said in a later interview with The Covington News that he has not heard any citizens say, “this needs to be put out to the citizens to vote on. We started this process with the citizens’ committee. That took about six months.
“That group brought it back and I think we had 85-90 percent of that document in the new charter,” he said.
Sims went on to say the committee had been comprised of a broad range of citizens and represented the community well. “I’m happy with the [new] form of government. Is everything in the document something I like? No, but I’m happy to move forward. I feel that it’s the best document to move this county forward — to have a professional, nonpolitical person running the day to day operation [and] a full-time chairman.”
Sims said he felt the new enabling legislation defined the roles of the chair and the county manager. “The chair is still, at the end of the day, the number one person.”
But, he added, there is a need for a county manager to oversee the employees. “The employees have a hard task working for the county. They should be buffered from politics.”
Sims said during the process of drafting the charter, he reached out to people “in the state, at the ACCG [Association County Commissioners of Georgia], attorneys in different counties and asked what they think. The response I got is that this [charter] is stronger; this is clearly defined.
“Moving forward, whoever comes in [to office] in 2017 will have a clear definition of what their roles and responsibilities will be,” he said. “So will the county manager and the BOC. The previous charter was very broad and left too many grey areas.”
There have been a number of previous attempts to revise the charter, but legislation could not be completed before it needed to be in the hands of the delegation. The delegation, consisting of State Representatives Pam Dickerson and Dave Belton, Dale Rutledge and Andrew Welch, and State Senators JaNice Van Ness and Rick Jaffres, decides whether or not to present the enabling legislation to the state’s General Assembly, which needs to vote on the new charter.
The Georgia General Assembly opens Monday, Jan. 11, and runs 40 days, closing on an estimate March 17.
Once approved by the General Assembly, it would go to the governor to be signed, making the new charter official, beginning in January 2017.