The Newton County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday to immediately create a county manager position and to place John Middleton in that position.
Under the new organizational chart, the county manager will directly manage all departments and operations, except for the public works department, and will report only to the board of commissioners, not the chairman.
Middleton, who was county administrative officer, will become county manager and will continue to serve at his current salary, though his office will be moved from the Historic Courthouse to the county administration building. Chairman Kathy Morgan's office is in the Historic Courthouse.
Middleton tendered his resignation in July and was scheduled to retire Dec. 15, but was instead appointed county manager Tuesday.
"I would like to ask Mr. Middleton, who has been doing this job for many years, if he would consider taking the job should the board offer it to him," Commissioner Mort Ewing said.
"I will consider it contingent on working some details out with the board," said Middleton, who noted he had given the issue a lot of thought during the past week.
The chairman will retain the power to hire and fire employees, though under the county charter hiring and firing requires approval of the majority of the board (except within the public works department).
Commissioners Ewing, Tim Fleming and J.C. Henderson voted to approve the change, while commissioners Nancy Schulz and Lanier Sims voted in opposition.
The evening was contentious, with audience members speaking out in disagreement and clapping both in support and in opposition to the change during the meeting. Commissioners and audience members on both sides of the issue gave speeches during the meeting and during the public comments section respectively.
How the new structure will operate is not yet clear. Henderson asked County Attorney Tommy Craig whether the chairman can still ask the county manager for information or instruct the county manager to do work. Craig said that likely depends on the scope of the work, but noted that if the chairman asks him to do work, then he does it.
The county manager will be appointed on an annual basis under the job description and will serve at the pleasure of the board, just as the county attorney and county clerk do.
Schulz expressed concern about a lack of checks and balances, asking if one county commissioner could direct work. Craig again refereed to his own situation, where he has done work at the request of a single commissioner, noting that the scope of the work is important. He said commissioners must use discretion.
Schulz, Morgan and others expressed concern that the county manager would not be directly responsive to the voters, whereas the chairman is. However, Craig said that was a political issue and decision, not a legal one.
Schulz also asked whether there was any duplication between the county manager's duties and the chairman's duties.
"To the extent possible we have respected the inherent powers, duties and authorities of the chair. There is no question that the day-to-day administrative operations of this county are being, under this job description, vested in another individual," Craig said. "But the charter provisions that relate to the chair are, other than these administrative duties, undisturbed."
The job description is at odds with the charter, which states that the chairman is the administrative officer of the county, but the creation of a county manager is allowed under state law section 36-5-22: "The governing authority of any county...may create...the office of county manager and may vest in such office powers, duties, and responsibilities of an administrative nature. The qualifications, method of selection, appointment, compensation, tenure, and such other related matters pertaining to the office of county manager shall be provided for by the governing authority of the county."
No one disputed the legality of the board making such a change, as the above state law was upheld in three separate Georgia Supreme Court cases. In the 1982 Supreme Court case "Gray v. Dixon" the court declared: "the General Assembly has simply agreed to share with certain county governments a limited portion of its power to change the form of county government.
In the 1999 Supreme Court case "Krieger v. Walton County Board of Commissioners", the court upheld the ruling, clarifying that the county manager cannot be declared the "chief executive officer" nor can he be given executive powers. (Copies of all three cases were provided to The News by the County Attorney Tommy Craig's office.)
However, Chairman Morgan said that while the creation of a county manager is not legally a change in government, she believes it is technically a change in government. Most changes in government can only be carried out via new legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly.
She proposed that the board hire the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia at a cost of $7,000 to educate and seek input from the public through public meetings, as well as preparing the county to hold a public referendum on the government change if so desired.
Commissioner Schulz made the motion later to keep the status quo, by hiring a replacement administrative officer, and to accept the Carl Vinson Institute's proposal. Sims seconded the motion, but it was superseded by a substitute motion made by Ewing which eventually passed.
Morgan said she will continue to pursue avenues to protect the rights of Newton County voters, which she believes are being violated by this switch.
Commissioners Ewing, Fleming and Henderson all denounced personal threats they said they received leading up to the vote. Ewing referenced someone attempting to get him fired from his job at the Jones, Ewing, Dobbs and Tamplin insurance company, while Fleming and Henderson said they and their families had been threatened.