County commissioners agree the county needs both a full-time election chairman and a full-time county manager or administrator, but they still need to decide which official will have ultimate firing and hiring authority and to whom county employees are ultimately responsible.
At the end of a two-hour work session Thursday, commissioners tasked County Attorney Tommy Craig – in consultation with County Manager John Middleton – with creating multiple options for organizational charts to the board this year after the budget process is wrapped up.
Chairman back in charge?
The issue of who’s at the top of the command chain is in the forefront because longtime administrator John Middleton, whose title was changed to county manager, will retire from his position by Sept. 1, and heir apparent Assistant County Manager Tom Garrett needs to know what his role will be.
The consensus seemed to lean towards restoring the chairman’s authority as the top official in county government, the one who has the top authority to make decision, and having the board serve as the check and balance to the chairman’s power.
What that would look like on a daily basis remains uncertain.
Commissioner John Douglas used the military for his example, saying the chairman should act as the general and have the county administrator/manager serve as his chief of staff, handling day-to-day administration.
Douglas said the two officials would meet each morning and go over the plan for the day, with the chairman’s ideas having priority, and then meet again in the evening to review. Douglas said the chairman could be the “cheerleader” for the county by going to meetings with different groups and being the county’s public face, while the county manager would handle the “nuts and bolts” of running the county.
Chairman Keith Ellis said the current organizational chart does have problems that need to be fixed. While most department heads and employees report to the county manager, the chairman is the one who “has to answer to the voters.” Ellis said when he gets calls about issues in planning and zoning or animal control, he has to refer them to Middleton because he doesn’t have direct oversight.
“If I’m going to answer to the voters, I don’t necessarily have to move every lever and button and switch, but I need to have access to them, the chairman (position) does,” Ellis said, noting he doesn’t get a vote on the board except in the case of a tie – a rare occurrence on a five-commissioner board.
Ellis has no worries about working with Garrett, as the two worked hand-in-hand on road projects and public works. Those areas were the only ones that remained directly under the chairman’s supervision, when the Board of Commissioners voted in Nov. 2011 to make Middleton county manager. Garrett was promoted from county engineer to transportation director, before being chosen by the board to eventually replace Middleton.
However, Ellis said there has to be clarity no matter the personalities.
The board bandied about the idea of stability, debating whether an elected chairman or an appoint county manager was likely to stay in his or her position longer.
While the chairman has to run for re-election every four years – elections provide an obvious ability for frequent turnover – but Ellis said he’s heard that county manager have short stays, with one source citing an average span of 1.9 years and another citing 3 years.
The independent government experts moderating the meeting said there’s several variables that can affect county manager professional lifespans. However, Dave Wills, local government expert for the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, said the two most important variables are the composition of the board of commissioners and the skill level of the manager/administrator – commissioners agreed there’s no practical difference in title, only ability (manager will be used for the rest of this article).
Wills sad it’s crucial for a county manager to know how to communicate with each elected official, but it’s also crucial that the board avoids putting the manager in the position of having to choose between commissioners.
While places like Jackson County have recently had a revolving door of county managers, other places like Athens-Clarke County has had the same manager for nearly 15 years.
Middleton has been county manager/administrator since 2001, and the county has had some long-serving chairmen, though turnover has increased in recent elections. Ellis was elected for the first time in Nov. 2012.
Garrett said he felt he was 30 more years to work if he’s lucky, and he believed one of the biggest keys to success would be having stability in the department head level.
Officials didn’t have any clear answer, though Craig said department heads used to be appointed directly by the board, which could lead to issues of changes in those positions if the political winds changed. However, Craig said the county could always consider giving employees more right to appeal a firing than they currently have.
Middleton said the current practice is that department heads handle hiring and firing of their employees, while the board is brought into the loop for department head level hiring and firings.
Commissioner Douglas asked whether salaries would need to be corrected in the future, particularly whether the county manager’s salary should stay the same or be lowered if he was reporting to the chairman.
Commissioner Lanier Sims said he thought the board wasn’t close to being able to deciding that question, and the discussion didn’t go further.
According to salary records previously requested by The News, Ellis is paid a salary of $94,244 per year, Middleton makes $85,987 and Garrett makes $82,316 (the totals don’t include the value of benefits).
Cleaning up the charter
The board agreed the county’s charter – technically called enabling legislation – needed to be cleaned up to clarify organizational chart and hiring and firing authority.
Schulz asked whether the chairman still needs to be in charge of roads, as stated in the charter, saying she thought that was antiquated.
Craig said that authority was secured by the chairman’s position by former longtime chairman Jack Morgan and was used to give the chairman leverage to convince commissioners to work with him on projects in exchange for getting road dollars in their district. All changes to the charter must be approved by the Georgia General Assembly and require the support of local representatives and senators who present that legislation to the Assembly on the county’s behalf.
Wills said he had not seen a lot of other charters that had similar language, giving the chairman hiring and fire power exclusively within one department.
Commissioner Levie Maddox said he was impressed by how such an important topic was handled in such a professional manner without argument. The work session was a far cry from the heated county meeting in November 2011 when that Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to strip power from then-chairman Kathy Morgan and transfer it to Middleton.
While many residents agreed the county needed a professional county manager, the manner in which the switch was made was criticized by some residents who felt the citizens were left out of the process.
Resident Karen Brooks, a member of the Newton Conservative Liberty Alliance, said she agreed Newton County needed both a full-time chairman and county manager because it’s such a large county. She didn’t give her thoughts about who the employees should report to, but agreed there needed to be a clear structure.
Resident Larry McSwain, a former state wildlife employee, has been carefully following the county manager situation and said in an email after the meeting he was pleased with the consensus to return ultimate executive authority to the chairman’s position, because that move is in line with the charter and allows the chairman to be truly accountable to the voters.
However, McSwain said the devil is in the details and he will be closely monitoring further discussions.