The balance of power in Newton County's government is expected to shift after three county commissioners gave their consensus Monday night to hire a replacement administrative officer who will report directly to the board of commissioners, but no longer report to the chairman.
County Attorney Tommy Craig was tasked Monday with modifying the existing job description for the administrative officer position - which will be vacated by John Middleton Dec. 15 - and including in that description that the officer report to and serve at the pleasure of the board, as do the county attorney and county clerk.
Commissioners Mort Ewing, Tim Fleming and J.C. Henderson gave their consensus to have the next administrative officer report directly to the board, while commissioners Nancy Schulz and Lanier Sims were not ready to make that change. The board unanimously agreed the position's description and duties needed to be clarified.
However, Chairman Kathy Morgan and Craig disagreed on whether that step would actually alter the form of the county's government.
Craig said, in his legal opinion, the move alters the chain of command, but it does not alter the form of government, while Morgan said the change would clearly change the form of government, and the only way for the board to legally make such a change is to hire a "county manager."
The disagreement led to a contentious exchange.
"(Carl Vinson Institute of Government officials) are familiar with our form of government, and they said - and there's no way to get around this - this is a change in the form of government and you are taking away the responsiveness to the voters," Morgan said.
"In the interest of accuracy, if there's a change in the form of government I believe it will have to by General Assembly, and if there is a question before the board whether or not to keep the county administrative officer position, whether to amend that position in some way or whether to create a position of county manger. Those are the issues before the board. And if the Carl Vinson Institute is says that what is being discussed is a change in government then they just are ill informed," Craig said.
"I also have that opinion from two attorneys," Morgan said.
"And they are ill informed also," Craig said.
"So your opinion is the right opinion?" Morgan asked.
"Well I'm right more than I'm wrong," Craig said.
The disagreement among the board stems from the reason for the resignation of Middelton. When he tendered his resignation in July, Middleton said he wanted to spend more time with family and pursue other opportunities.
However, Ewing said Middleton resigned because he has not been allowed to function in his position during Morgan's tenure.
Morgan said Middleton resigned - at least in large part - because the board of commissioners, including Morgan, did not respect and accept his budget recommendation to the board, instead choosing to keep the millage rate at 10.91.
Schulz said she thought Middleton resigned because of personal issues and because he was dissatisfied with the last budget process.
Ewing said the position of administrative officer had functioned fine during his first eight years on the board, but that the position had not been able to function during the past three years - Morgan's term in office. Therefore, he, Fleming and Henderson proposed having the position report directly to the board of commissioners, which they hope will solve the current problems.
Morgan has staunchly opposed any switch that does not involve further study, including informing voters and seeking their opinions.
She said the proposed switch will alter how government operates and will largely strip the administrative powers of the chairman, who under the charter is designated as the chief administrative official of the county.
Craig is expected to present a revised job description to the board at its Nov. 15 meeting. All commissioners agreed that the position needs to be filled, and Morgan said there was money in the budget at the level of Middleton's salary of $82,846.