The balance of power in Newton County's government is expected to shift away from the chairman after three county commissioners gave their consensus Monday night to hire a county manager who will report directly to the board of commissioners.
The county manager will be appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the board, similar to the county clerk and county attorney.
Commissioners Mort Ewing, Tim Fleming and J.C. Henderson gave their consensus - votes cannot be taken at work sessions - 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 without further study.
County Attorney Tommy Craig was tasked Monday with modifying the existing job description for the administrative officer position, which will be vacated by a retiring John Middleton Dec. 15. Craig clarified Tuesday that by changing the reporting requirements of the position, it will become a county manager position.
County governments are allowed to create a county manager position under the state code 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."
The creation of a county manager does not legally change the form of government, said Craig, who referenced three Georgia Supreme Court decisions. In order for the form of government to officially be changed, the charter would have to be changed by a vote of the Georgia General Assembly.
Commissioners Ewing, Fleming and Henderson never mentioned the term "county manager" Monday night, but only said they wanted the current administrative officer position to report directly to the board. Before it was clear that this would be done by creating a county manager, Craig and county Chairman Kathy Morgan disagreed over whether the reporting change would change the form of government.
"(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.
While Morgan acknowledged state law gave the board the power to appoint a county manager, she said that the commissioner's handbook, which offers guidance for commissioners, suggested that the form of county government should not be changed in any way without involving the voters nor should it be done in the middle of a chairman's term.
"Just because it's legal that doesn't make it right," Morgan said Tuesday.
The reason the three commissioners wanted to switch to a county manager is because they believe Middleton has not been able to properly function during Morgan's term in office.
Ewing said prior to Morgan's term, budgets were presented and approved on time, balanced budgets were presented and the 2005 SPLOST passed with no problems.
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.
On the other hand, Morgan said Middleton resigned - at least in large part - because the board of commissioners did not respect the budgets he originally brought to the board, which called for a millage rate increase.
The question remains of how exactly a county manager and the county chairman will interact. The chairman is the chief administrative officer of the county under the charter, and the board did not give any indication Monday that they planned to strip the chairman's powers. However, if the county manager can be tasked with administrative duties by the board, then the situation exists where the manager and chairman could duplicate efforts as they would both have authority.
Morgan has staunchly opposed any switch that does not involve further study, including informing voters and seeking their opinions.
"I think if the commissioners are able to strip authority given to the charter and voters, if that's legal, then everybody needs to get up in arms," Morgan said Tuesday. "Why do we vote if we have three people say, ‘We make the rules.' Why do we have an election, a process, a government and charter?"
She called the move Monday night a political power play.
"This is not about the job description or performance of the job, this is about who has control. This is a political power play to change the form of government," Morgan said Tuesday. "Part-time district commissioners will now make the decisions for 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 current salary, which is around $82,000.