County officials and citizens alike expressed frustration with the current form of government and appeared to favor returning to a model closer to that which was in place before 2011 during a public hearing Thursday night.
The Board of Commissioners have scheduled March 17 for their final decision on the matter.
The position of county manager will likely be moved directly under the authority of the chairman, or be eliminated in favor of an administrator who answers to the chairman.
The form of government has repercussions for who is allowed to hire and fire county employees and run the day-to-day affairs of the county.
Under the current form of government, the county manager’s “specified administrative duties” include literally all county business except roads and bridges, which falls under the purview of the chairman.
Commissioners are barred by law from direct interaction with county employees in order to limit political interference. The manager is a hired position that answers to the Board of Commissioners.
Dave Wills, government relations manager of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG), presented five alternative models in addition to the present one. The major difference lies in how management and oversight of various departments are divided between the county chairman and the manager.
Only one of the models discussed at the meeting--that in which the county chairman was made a part time position--would require an amendment to the current legislation, Wills said.
The majority of citizens who spoke said they preferred to have an elected official running the county directly.
“We vote for a chairman…we don’t vote for a county manager,” said resident Frederich Johnson.
The form of government has been a fraught topic since the board voted to strip former Chairman Kathy Morgan of her powers in a 3-2 surprise vote in 2011. The position of county manager was then created to exercise those powers.
Aaron Brooks of the Newton County Conservative Liberty Alliance said forcing through a fundamental shift in government structure through a simple majority vote was a mistake.
“'Majority rules' is two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for dinner,” he said. “This [problem] was caused by something that was broken in our system and that was the use of home rule,” the law invoked in 2011.
The position of chairman was further undermined in 2014 when current Chairman Keith Ellis was stripped of more powers following the outcry over an illegal loan Ellis approved to Commissioner J.C. Henderson.
Ronnie Cowan, a local lawyer, said, “I don’t like the fact that I can’t rely on the powers that I thought the chairman had when I voted for him.”
Larry Mcswain, a retired Fish and Wildlife Services employee, accused the county of operating outside its charter and said County Manager Tom Garrett was in a “no win” situation having to answer to the entire board.
One surprise speaker was Morgan herself, who warned the BOC not to attempt to make the chairman a part time job.
“We need a full time chairman…and you cannot pay that person enough for what they do,” she said.
Referring to her own removal from power, she said while it was “technically legal,” it “was not right" to remove an elected official chosen by the voters.
One county employee told the board that the local government was in disarray, and that many department supervisors were unclear about who was in charge.
Even Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston told the board to get its act together.
“Provide some leadership and policy and empower people to do the job,” he told the board.
The commissioners and chairman thanked the public for their participation and welcomed the positive mood, which stood in contrast to Tuesday’s meeting where citizens vented their anger over the county attorney’s budget and commissioners’ response.
See Sunday’s edition of The News for charts of the various government structure options discussed at the meeting.