County commissioners could decide to return ultimate authority to the county chairman, a move that would reverse, or least alter, the decision by a previous board in November 2011 to create a county manager form of government.
Government expert Dave Wills, who works with the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, presented his findings to the Newton County Board of Commissioners Tuesday on inconsistencies between the county’s charter (technically called an enabling act) and the job description of the county manager.
In a follow-up phone call Thursday, Wills said there’s no objectively correct answer on how to organize the county’s government, but said he saw two key conflicts in the current structure:
- The charter says the chairman is the top administrative officer, but the county manager’s job description gives him the primary administrative duties.
- The county manager has day-to-day oversight of employees but has no authority to hire and fire; the chairman, with approval by the board, is the one who can hire and fire.
"The manager appears to make a recommendation to the chairman, then it goes to board. It’s a three-tiered system I’ve not observed anywhere else," Wills said Wednesday, recapping points he made to the board. "There needs to be clarity in the relationship between county employees, the manager and the chairman.
"To whom do the employees salute? When they rise in the morning, to whom do they pledge allegiance?" Will ssaid.
Wills also pointed out an inconsistency that indirectly limits the public’s influence on the county budget:
- The chairman is the only official elected county wide, but no longer participates in the budget preparation process, outside of transportation departments, and has no vote, so his influence on the key policy decision – the budget – is limited.
"(The adoption of the budget) is the single most important policy document a county has, and it sets priorities for the county, which is really a policy decision," Wills said.
Elected officials in all governments are generally understood to be the top policymakers for their organizations.
Wills said the current organizational chart has the board of commissioners on top with a line directly to the county manager. The chairman is left out of the top of the chart, despite the charter stating the chair position is the top administrative officer.
If commissioners want to reconcile the discrepancies, they could either choose to revise the charter and leave the current structure in place or restore the chairman to the manager’s role, returning to a government closer to what previously existed when the county had a county administrator.
Commissioners Nancy Schulz and John Douglas agreed the county chairman should be the person in ultimate authority over the county.
"I think it’s important for us to be consistent with our (charter) and that we have one person where the buck stops, and that the only person in the county with that type of authority that is elected by the entire population is the chairman," Schulz said Thursday.
She said there needs to be a balance of power among the chairman, board and county administrative officer, so too much power is not concentrated in any one position.
Schulz said she think the ideal structure would be one where the chairman is like a corporation’s CEO, looking at the big picture issues facing the county, while the administrative officer handles day-to-day operations and reports to the chairman.
That was Wills’ advice as well, if the board decided to reinvest authority to the chairman. He said the county probably wouldn’t want the chairman getting involved in the minutiae of day-to-day operations, but rather focusing on big-picture priorities such as promoting economic development.
The potential discrepancies are at the forefront of the board’s talks because the board recently appointed a successor to retiring County Manager John Middleton.
Transportation director Tom Garrett was hired as assistant county manager in January, with the understanding he would begin learning as much as he could from Middleton to be ready to take over the top spot when Middleton retires this September.
Schulz originally asked the board to hold off appointing a successor until the board could look at the county’s structure. Schulz again asked the board to delay a decision Tuesday to formally approve the job description and salary for Garrett.
However, the board voted 3-2 to approve Garrett’s job description, specifying the position will not exist past Dec. 31.
The board also unanimously approved Garrett’s salary of $82,316, which is midway between his prior salary of $78,644 as transportation director and current County Manager John Middleton’s salary of $85,987. Garrett is continuing on as transportation director, and his $3,672 raise is being paid out of the public works fund, Chairman Keith Ellis said.
Ellis said Thursday he purposely stayed on the sidelines during the discussion about the county’s organizational chart since the changes would affect him and the decision is ultimately the board’s to make.
Another work session has not been set, but commissioners expressed a desire to discuss the issues in more depth.