The Newton County Board of Commissioners' first meeting with its new board members on Thursday night had its moments of controversy as the board disagreed over who to appoint to the Joint Development Authority and new Chairman Keith Ellis had to cast a tie-breaking vote in his first meeting.
The board of commissioners voted 3-2 to appoint former county commissioner Mort Ewing to be Newton County's at-large citizen appointee to the Joint Development Authority - the group that oversees Stanton Springs Industrial Park. The move knocked off long-serving authority member and the groups' treasurer Denny Dobbs, but not before some of what District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz called "political gymnastics."
The Joint Development Authority is comprised of two members apiece from each of the four counties - Newton, Walton, Morgan and Jasper - that have ownership in Stanton Springs, which has taken on more importance in recent months with the arrival of mega medical products manufacturer Baxter International.
Each county gets a citizen appointment, which Dobbs had held since the authority was first formed in the late 1990s, and each county gets an elected official appointment, which had been Ewing's spot since the early 2000s.
However, since Ewing retired, he could no longer serve on the authority as the elected representative. In what some called a politically-motivated vote, the board decided that Ewing would be the best person to remain on the authority, not Dobbs.
The process wasn't quite as simple as that; however, as Commissioner Schulz made the first motion, which was to reappoint Dobbs as the citizen representative. In addition to serving on the authority, Dobbs owns an environmental consulting business and is a former state representative for Newton County.
Before Schulz's motion was voted on, new District 1 County Commissioner John Douglas made a substitute motion to appoint Ewing to the citizen spot.
Schulz told the board she was concerned about replacing a long-serving member who had a significant role (treasurer) on the board saying it could send a bad signal to Baxter. Schulz said she had also been in contact with several members of the authority, whose concern was that removing Dobbs at this time would be very disruptive to the board.
The vote on the substitute motion to appoint Ewing was initially split 2-2 with commissioners Schulz and Lanier Sims voting against the motion, while and commissioners Douglas and Levie Maddox voted for the motion. Commissioner J.C. Henderson abstained from voting, but did not give any rationale leaving Ellis to break the tie in his first meeting as newly elected chairman. Ellis voted in favor of appointing Ewing, which allowed the motion to carry 3-2.
The behind the scenes talk leading up to the appointment was that the vote was full of political motivations on both sides, with some accusing Ewing supporters of participating in backroom, partisan politics, while those on the other side said Dobbs, who is a Democrat, was unreliable and had himself campaigned against many Republicans in the county.
In an interview before the meeting Thursday morning, Ellis said he was concerned about the heavy lobbying going on behind the scenes and said he wanted to bring unity to the board. He also noted that when new elected officials are put into office, they want to have a certain level of comfort with the people they choose to appoint as their representatives to various board and authorities.
He said there had been a lot of turnover on the county commissioners in Walton, Morgan and Jasper counties as well and wouldn't be surprised if the Joint Development Authority looked fairly different in the upcoming year.
"We'll get through it, and I appreciate the community support to get us through that," Ellis said before the meeting. "When it's all said and done, in my case if it doesn't work out with a unanimous vote, we'll move and start over next time and hopefully it will be."
Reporter Danielle Everson contributed to this story.