There was a flash of temper toward the end of a Board of Commissioners work session Tuesday night, but the rest of the evening brought quick work on a list of 12 questions concerning changing the Chairman’s role in government.
The questions were prepared by Ronnie Cowan, chair of the recent citizens’ group on Form of Government, which presented its summary and recommendations in July. Among the committee’s work was recommending transferring most of the operational duties from the chair to a county manager.
All but one of the commissioners voted in favor of making most of the changes covered in the questions. Commissioner J. C. Henderson, of District 4, consistently voted against them.
Originally, the BOC looked at 12 questions. Two — one on the veto power of the chair, and one requiring the county manager to report to the chair daily—were struck down.
The 10 questions asked included points on shifting to the county manager all operational duties, budgetary and financial responsibilities, supervisory roles, oversight of roads and bridges, preparing and submitting a budget to the board, and serving as the hiring/firing authority for classified employees.
Employees hired before May 2006 are entitled to a hearing in the case of termination. Currently, the chair sits as the “hearing officer.” Attorney Jenny Carter of W. T. Craig Law Offices said that the issue could be addressed by making the county manager the ultimate authority over hiring and firing, with an explanatory section in the legislation about the chair’s participating in the process.
During the discussions concerning hiring and firing, Henderson interjected and insisted that making the decision to change the charter should go to the voters. Chair Keith Ellis suggested a straw poll be taken during the upcoming special election, but Carter warned that the legislature would ask the BOC to launch a referendum board, and the county would be responsible for covering the cost of the election.
While Henderson spoke against the proposed changes, other commissioners applauded the efforts being made. “In an hour and 15 minutes, the board answered 12 questions,” said Commission Lanier Sims of District 2. “In my opinion, this is more work than we’ve done in four years.”
Sims then said the reason the county was struggling with these issues began when “three commissioners walked into this room [four years ago] and stripped the chair of her power.”
Sims was referring to a 2011 3-2 vote of the BOC that stripped away most of the chair’s authority over all departments and operations from then chair, Kathy Morgan, to a newly created county manager, leaving only oversite the roads and bridges department with the chair. Those roles the chairman and manager performed since 2011 were never clearly defined by the charter, and the issue became a hot topic again last year.
When Henderson made a move to interrupt Sims, the District 2 commissioner snapped, “I’ve listened to your comments. Show me respect and listen to mine.
“For four years, we’ve talked about these decisions,” he said. On Tuesday night, “four of us said yes. We have incredibly difficult decisions coming up. We have to stop kicking the can down the road. We’re elected to make these decisions.”
District 1 Commissioner John Douglas said he agreed with Sims. “Four of us sitting up here are going to the voters next year. If they are unhappy with our decisions, they will let us know.
He felt the BOC needed to address two additional questions needed: whether the chair’s position would be full- or part-time, and what salary would the chair be paid.
District 5 Commissioner Levie Maddox reminded the BOC that steps had to be taken, since Harry Owens, will only be Interim County Manager through December. “We have to find a permanent city manager and we have to make decisions.”
Another work session has been scheduled and will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 20 at 6 p.m., just prior to the BOC’s regular meeting.