Newton County has a history of strong, stable leadership, which enabled it to recruit one large industry after another in decades past.
But saddled with the remains of out-of-control residential development in the past decade and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression in the last three years, the county is striving to create a new identity.
That will have to be done as the county undergoes changes in local government leadership.
Over the next 18 months, the county's top two administrators will be retiring, and eight elected officials, including the Covington mayor and county chairman, will be up for election.
In consecutive days this week, Covington City Manager Steve Horton and county Administrative Officer John Middleton announced they would be retiring within the next year. By the end of 2011, Horton will have been city manager for six years, and with the city a total of 34, while Middleton will have been county administrator for 11 years.
More than 40 percent of all county administrators have served less than three years, so Newton's level of longevity is uncommon.
While Horton will be replaced, and likely have time to interact and potentially train a replacement, the county administrator position must be left unfilled at least through the end of fiscal year 2012, June 30. Because Middleton's Dec. 15 retirement is tied into the county's budget cuts, federal law states that his position cannot be rehired during the next year.
In addition, the city has the financial luxury to be able to recruit top talent if it so chooses, while the county's bare-bones budget makes it unclear what kind of replacement it could find if and when it does open up a search.
Dave Wills is a former chairman of Webster County and current local government expert for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG), a county government advocacy group. Wills said a turnover of top administrative leadership isn't necessarily uncommon, and doesn't have to disrupt government if the policies and procedures are well-defined and county department heads are well trained.
However, negative consequences include a possible loss of history and institutional knowledge and a learning curve that can disrupt operations.
Some in the community have been calling for Newton County to hire a full-time manager, and given the opening that will exist, now could be the time to consider the move.
County Chairman Kathy Morgan said Thursday she has considered such a move, but isn't yet sure if it would be beneficial. The public must approve significant changes in government structure in a public referendum.
Newton County's current form of government, in which the board of commissioners appoints a county administrator and major department heads, is the most common in Georgia, used in 64 counties, according to ACCG.
However, out of those, only 13 have both a full-time administrator and a full-time county chairman. Morgan is the head of the public works department, while Middleton serves as chief financial officer, and both oversee other departments and general county operations.
Wills said the main difference between an administrator and manager is that a manager generally has the ability to directly hire and fire department heads without the board's approval.
Making the switch would reduce the board and chairman's power, and increase the power of a non-elected official. The switch would add a layer between department heads and commissioners.
Even with a manager, it's unclear if a part-time chairman would be an option, as Morgan said the chairman is required to attend several regional and state meetings, and the county continues to grow.
However, most of the largest counties have a full-time manager or administrator and part-time chairman, with the exception of Cobb and Gwinnett, which also have full-time chairmen.
Newton County first hired a county administrator in 1985 when it promoted Brian Allen to the position, according to County Attorney Tommy Craig. Craig said the position has added responsibilities during the years, making it similar to other county managers.
A true county manager could also be more expensive than an administrator. According to an ACCG study, county managers make an average salary of $95,200, while administrators average $89,658. Middleton makes $82,846 while Morgan makes $89,334, according to county records.
According to the ACCG study, an administrator or manager in a county of Newton's size should make more than $111,000. Given budget reductions, would Newton County be able to afford this salary?
Regardless, county managers will never have as much power as their city brethren. Counties differ from cities in that they have several elected constitutional officers, such as the clerk of courts, judges, tax commissioner and the sheriff, who report to the board, but have autonomy.
Another consideration is that no manager can do his job if his superiors, in this case the board, don't respect his authority, Morgan said.
Morgan and commissioners Mort Ewing, Nancy Schulz and Tim Fleming will be up for election in November 2012.
New city manager
The city is in a clearer cut position. Horton said he doesn't plan to retire until next July at the earliest and will stay until a new manager is hired and even beyond if needed "to ensure a healthy transition for the organization, the new manager and our citizens."
According to the city's charter, the city council is the body that appoints the city manager, and it will decide when to start the process, though Horton said waiting until after November's election could make sense, given four seats are up for election.
"(The council) could elect to just promote from within, which would likely shorten the process considerably or they could expand their search and post ads in larger newspapers, trade journals, or use private head-hunter type agencies to help in the securing of résumés," Horton said. "Either way, I believe that they should be able to fill the position within 120 days or less."
Councilman Chris Smith said he will "be very involved in the hiring of the next city manager."
"The council hires the city manager; the mayor is not involved in the process. My hope is that we look abroad, if the most qualified person is already within the city, so be it," Smith said.
In addition to the search for a city manager, or as part of that process, Horton said he did expect that a deputy city manager position would also be filled. The council has discussed previously in an effort to prepare for an eventual transition.
It's unclear whether a deputy city manager would be hired and then take over for Horton or whether the position would become a permanent fixture.
In any case, with a second-year school superintendent and recently hired economic development recruiter, both from outside the county, it's clear Newton County is seeing a significant change of leadership.