About 40 people showed up to a public fireside chat on April 10 at 7 p.m. at The Oaks Course to discuss the Newton County Board of Commissioners structure.
Although no final conclusions were made, District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz said the goal of the chat was to find a path toward solutions and that a diverse representation of residents showed up with mixed perspectives.
“It really wasn’t just District 3,” Schulz said. “It was a cross-section of the entire county.”
The meeting was spurred after a BOC February work session, led by Dave Willis, an expert in government structure from the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, initially brought up the strengths, weaknesses and legality of the current structure.
“At the end of the evening, they were most concerned that whatever form of government we end up with when we finish this, whoever is in charge is accountable to the people,” Schulz said.
‘Who’s the ultimate boss?’
In the current enabling legislation, commissioners in District 3 can hire and fire a county manager. Schulz said she got the impression the people felt they didn’t have enough authority in that realm. The discussion brought out a want for a public election of a chairperson who sits above commissioners and county managers.
“People said they have no say in what’s being done in the county manager’s office or how it’s being run,” Schulz said. “Did the commission not trust the voters to elect a qualified individual? It was a vigorous discussion.”
A tiered organizational structure was brainstormed, where a publicly elected chairperson would reside at the top and would still be responsive to the public, but there would be positions on the way down the ladder reserved for professional experts as division chairs or department heads.
Schulz said the people who attended the meeting were residents who took the time and energy to study the situation and educate themselves but still were not able to figure out who was “really in charge. Where does the buck stop?”
“The ultimate resolution to (the April 10 meeting) is that we all agree we need to start with the current enabling legislation to see if we can make improvements and clean that up and make it stronger. Then, if that’s not doable, move to a county manager form of government,” Schulz said.
Blurry voting district lines
One of the most important comments made, Schulz said, was not necessarily concerning the structure discussion. It was brought to her attention that a lot of people planning to vote in the coming election are still confused as to which voting district they reside in. She said many people in District 4 thought they were in District 3 and were not aware there was any confusion.
“As candidates knocked on doors, they (residents) were not aware that they had moved to a different district along Brown Bridge Road,” Schulz said.
‘Ideally, maybe one day’
Schulz said someone brought in a table comparing Newton with other counties of the same size and pre-November 2011 structure, asking why those counties have a significantly lower millage rate. She pointed out that those counties have strong industrial bases for their BOC to pull from, and Newton County’s “industrial base is just not that strong.”
Another issue brought up was the legality of whether an attorney on staff could be used for day-to-day affairs, such as contracts, while the current county attorney could be reserved for special issues like land acquisitions or legal battles.
Schulz said people wondered why road work is currently run and supervised by the county chair, feeling the department is not qualified for such a duty.
She said a want for key governmental employees to be required to live within the county limits was discussed, but she pointed out that Newton County cannot legally enforce such a requirement.
“It wasn’t an emotional discussion,” Schulz said. “It was very thoughtful and deliberate.”
Schulz said she will take the issues discussed into consideration when preparing questions to be brought up at the April 24 meeting with Wills.