The Newton County Board of Commissioners are looking to have a new county charter presented during the first meeting of the new year, and got a step closer to that during a work session Tuesday.
Jenny Carter, with the law firm of Wm. W.T. Craig, has been working on the charter since early fall in order to better define our county’s structure of government and move towards a stronger county manager form of government. Commissioners and the chair went over modifications to that document Tuesday.
Among the changes made in the most recent discussion was the removal of a proposed veto power for the chair. That power would enable the chair to overrule on a 3-2 vote or 2-1 vote. Several commissioners spoke out against the veto, with District 1 Commissioner John Douglas saying it didn’t make sense that the chair normally wouldn’t have a vote, but could override one.
“I do think there needs to be checks and balances in the system,” District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz said. “My only concern is with the way that the language reads on that veto statement is would we be facing veto every week? I think if we open ourselves up for that every board meeting, then it becomes chaos and we can’t get the job done.”
Carter and interim county attorney Ken Jarrard said the veto powers doesn’t need to be in the enabling legislation, but could be enacted through a motion.
“The enabling legislation is everything,” Jarrard said. “With respect to the veto requirement, you see motions made more on this in the cities and municipalities. That would be a way to do it — in an ordinance. Adopt it on a year-to-year basis. That makes it a more flexible power to make it an ordinance.
“If it’s in [the enabling legislation] it’s your law.”
The board then took a straw poll to remove the veto language from the proposed enabling legislation charter, with it gaining a 4-1 consensus. District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson passed on the vote because four affirmatives had already been stated.
Following the poll to remove the veto language, the District 4 Commissioner then requested language discussing a commissioner’s ability to abstain from a vote in the ethics portion of the enabling legislation.
“I agree completely that recusal or abstention needs to be included,” Jarrard said. “While you have the ability for an abstention, you also have the ability to say no.”
Another issue with the proposed document, Maddox brought up Tuesday was a section on a work plan. The work plan would put in writing in the charter that the board would have a strategic session or vision session to set goals, and later on in the year look back on those goals to see if they were achieved.
Jarrard warned against the idea of a work plan in the charter, saying if it wasn’t followed it could cause problems for the board.
“In your pyramid this is the base. Other than the constitution and general law this is your most important document,” Jarrard said. “Once you put [the work plan] in [enacting legislation] you have to do this. That work plan concerns me from the standpoint that if it is in here, it is an easy gotcha moment.”
With four commissioners seeming to agree on the proposed charter changes, Henderson and Chair Keith Ellis voiced their desire to remain with a strong county chair form of government.
“I think the charter we had in 2011 — although the writing and interpretation and maybe some of the terminology needed updating — I believe it provided the best representation for the citizens,” Ellis said. “It certainly provides better checks and balances than what we’ve had.”
Ellis also recommended putting the charter changes on a referendum during the previous special election held by the county, stating the people should have a say.
“This is very important issue that the citizens should get a voice in,” he said. “We have 105,000 voters in the county that won’t get a chance to voice their opinion.”
Commissioners opted to move along with the charter going in front of Newton County’s legislative delegation for the next legislative session, pending a vote on the next draft at their first meeting in January.
“We need to set a definite timeline tonight so we don’t miss that date in January,” District 2 Commissioner Lanier Sims said.