Jabari Bennett, a graduated senior from Eastside High School, is one of three recipients of the statewide Constitutional Officers Association of Georgia’s $1,500 scholarships. He received his award at Tuesday’s Newton County Board of Commissioners meeting.Bennett, of Social Circle, plans to attend Valdosta State and major in business.
The award is given on behalf of the officials authorized by the state constitution — the sheriff, clerk of court, probate judge and tax commissioner. Newton County’s officials were all present Tuesday.
Following is Bennett’s scholarship-winning essay (verbatim) on the topic “Who are the locally elected constitutional officers and what differentiates them from other county offices?”
Each of Georgia’s 159 counties have duly elected constitutional officers as follows:
• Clerk of the Superior Court
• Probate Judges
• Tax Commissioners
The responsibilities of each of these elected officers are very different and unique to the office. The Clerk of the Superior Court is responsible for a variety of responsibilities such recording, maintenance and retrieval of personal and property tax records, civil and criminal findings, and general and limited partnerships. The Clerk also records and cancels General Executions (Fi Fa’s), process notary applications and some even process new passports, renewals and passport photos.
Probate Judges handle a variety of tasks as well ranging from marriage licenses, wills, widows’ years support, minor guardianships and the issuance of weapons carry licenses.
The duties of Georgia’s Sheriffs’ are vast. Responsibilities range from providing law enforcement services, maintaining the county jails, and providing security to the courts. They also execute and return all processes and orders of the courts including various types of summons, Fi Fa’s, garnishments, etc. Sheriffs also handle home foreclosure sales.
Tax Commissioners are responsible for the collection of real estate, personal property and motor vehicle taxes, processing of homeowner exemptions, motor vehicle tags and titles and issuing disabled placards. In some instances, Tax Commissioners also collect taxes for the many city jurisdictions in their county. This has proven to be very effective and cost effective for those cities.
While these individuals are elected by the citizens of each county to four year terms, they differ vastly from other county offices. Firstly, other county offices or departments are often administered by a county manager and overseen by a Board of Commissioners, whereas constitutional officers work independently and report to the citizens to whom they serve.
Another difference is the status of employees who work for these elected offices. While the employees are considered county employees, they often work at “the pleasure” of the constitutional officer. This means that many of these employees are not governed by the same civil service laws that traditional county employees are under. This allows the elected officers greater flexibility in their hiring and terminating decisions. For example, traditional most county offices have a Human Resources department and offices under the purview of the Board of Commissioners, must employ applicants through the HR department. Constitutional officers are not bound to utilizing the county’s HR department and can choose to hire their staff independently.
Budgeting is a major issue when dealing with constitutional officers. It is the responsibility of the Board of Commissioners to provide the constitutional officers with their budgets; however, these elected officials must be given a budget in which they can do their jobs. These elected officials have a degree of autonomy when handling their allocated resources with the key being not to exceed their budget which could lead to a violation of their oath of office. In some instances, these constitutional officers can spend within the confines of their budget without having to follow specific county guidelines. Yes, they must follow state law, but sometimes the counties have much more stringent purchasing guidelines, however, being a constitutional officer grants these individuals greater power in how they spend the offices’ monies.
It is critical to remember that elected officers report to the citizens whom elect them and not the Board of Commissioners. This is often a misnomer as most citizens do not realize this. These individuals have tremendous power but must carry out their duly sworn duties. Failure to do so could lead to systemic problems for the constitutional officer and also the county in general. For example, if the Tax Commissioner does not collect taxes effectively and efficiently, the county as a whole would suffer because of a loss in revenue. This would have a snowball effect throughout the county as other departments could suffer leading to poor service and possible loss of jobs. Likewise, if the Clerk of the Superior Court does not properly maintain court or property records, this could lead to litigation against the county and could utilize vital financial resources that the county could not afford to spend.
In summary, the one critical difference between the locally elected constitutional officers from regular county offices can be summed in one word “control.” Locally elected constitutional officers have tremendous control over their staff and how they run their offices. The Board of Commissioners or county manager has little to no authority over them other than providing them with a budget. In some cases this works well and I am sure in others it does not. I would think it would be in all parties’ best interest to work together for the betterment of their local county.