Two days after Newton County moved to a county manager form of government, officials have yet to detail how the new structure will work.
The Newton County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday night to immediately create a county manager position and to place John Middleton, who had been county administrative officer, in that position.
Commissioners Mort Ewing, Tim Fleming and J.C. Henderson voted in favor, with commissioners Nancy Schulz and Lanier Sims opposing what they felt was a hasty change.
Under the new organizational chart, the county manager will directly manage all departments and operations, except for the public works department, and will report only to the board of commissioners, not the chairman.
“The manager role is a different position with different challenges and responsibilities. My work with departments in day to day operations has diminished the last few years and was mainly a financial focus. I discussed this concern and budget process with the chairman when I submitted my resignation in July,” Middleton said in an email Thursday. “I would not have chosen to remain with Newton County to continue in that same role.”
Middleton, who had been planning to retire Dec. 15, will continue to serve at his current salary, though his office will be moved from the Historic Courthouse to the county administration building. Chairman Kathy Morgan's office is in the Historic Courthouse.
No details were given about whether Middleton will be provided with his own clerical support. In his motion, Ewing said Middleton would “be responsible for his own clerical support.”
Ewing asked Tuesday whether Middleton would agree to stay on as county manager.
"I will consider it contingent on working some details out with the board," said Middleton, who noted he had given the issue a lot of thought during the past week. He did not expand on which details had to be worked out, and it appears he will remain on past December.
The chairman will retain the power to hire and fire employees, though under the county charter hiring and firing requires approval of the majority of the board (except within the public works department).
Normally, a county manager is given the ability to hire and fire without the board's approval, Dave Wills, local government expert for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, told The News previously.
Rationale for switch
Commissioners Ewing and Fleming each gave speeches Tuesday, but both declined to provide further comment Thursday.
“I have given all of the comments that I am going to give on this issue at this time. You can get my remarks out of the minutes from the BOC meeting,” Fleming said by email Thursday.
Ewing said in early October he spoke to each commissioner about his concern over Middleton’s resignation and the fact that the county had done nothing to fill the seat.
Originally, Morgan had said Middleton’s position could not be hired back because it had been included in the county’s layoff. However, creating a new position nullifies any of that concern.
Ewing said he also discussed the matter with members of the public, who agreed the county needed both a professional manager and a full-time chair.
He did not expand Tuesday on why he felt the switch was needed, but said in last week’s work session that Middleton had not been able to properly function during Morgan’s term. He said prior to Morgan's term balanced budgets were presented and approved on time and the 2005 SPLOST passed with no problems.
Fleming said the board has had to make budget cuts and layoff employees and said it’s the duty of the chairman and staff to carry out the policies.
“These tough times requires a strong leader to carry out the wishes of the commissioners, whether the leader agrees or not,” Fleming said Tuesday. “We need someone who can work with the commissioners, other elected officials, business leaders and all constituents of this county, not just the select few.
“Unfortunately, our county has not been headed in the right direction and for that reason, in my capacity as county commissioner, I believe that this board has to move forward tonight with these proposed changes.”
Henderson did clarify his viewpoint Thursday, saying that he believed Morgan did not provide him with the information he requested, and he hoped now that Middleton reported directly to the board, he would have access to all and any information he requested.
Specifically, he said he never received an analysis of how much money the county would save by moving to a four-day work week, a move he felt could have prevented layoffs.
Concerns with switch
Henderson asked County Attorney Tommy Craig Tuesday whether the chairman can still ask the county manager for information or instruct the county manager to do work. Craig said that likely depends on the scope of the work, but noted that if the chairman asks him to do work, then he does it.
The county manager will be appointed on an annual basis under the revised job description and will serve at the pleasure of the board, just as the county attorney and county clerk do. Middleton may be reappointed in January, which is when the clerk and attorney are appointed.
Schulz expressed concern about a lack of checks and balances, asking if one county commissioner could direct work. Craig again referred to his own situation, where he has done work at the request of a single commissioner, noting that the scope of the work is important. He said commissioners must use discretion.
Craig was out of the office Wednesday and Thursday and did not respond to a follow-up email.
Schulz, Morgan and members of the public expressed concern that the county manager would not be directly responsive to the voters, as opposed to the elected chairman.
Schulz also asked whether there was any duplication between the county manager's duties and the chairman's duties.
"To the extent possible we have respected the inherent powers, duties and authorities of the chair. There is no question that the day-to-day administrative operations of this county are being, under this job description, vested in another individual," Craig said. "But the charter provisions that relate to the chair are, other than these administrative duties, undisturbed."
The job description is at odds with the charter, which states that the chairman is the administrative officer of the county and also that the commissioners “shall at no time enter into administrative acts, contact employees or personnel of said county in relation to any duty or work habits of said employee, request any service or actions on the part of said employee except through the chairman.”
However, the creation of a county manager is allowed under state law section 36-5-22: "The governing authority of any county...may create...the office of county manager and may vest in such office powers, duties, and responsibilities of an administrative nature.”
Craig has said previously that general state law — law that applies to the entire state — supersedes locally related state law, such as the charter.
The legality of the board making such a change was upheld in three separate Georgia Supreme Court cases. In the 1982 Supreme Court case "Gray v. Dixon" the court declared: "The General Assembly has simply agreed to share with certain county governments a limited portion of its power to change the form of county government.”
In the 1999 Supreme Court case "Krieger v. Walton County Board of Commissioners," the court upheld the Gray ruling, clarifying that the county manager cannot be declared the "chief executive officer" nor can he be given executive powers. (Copies of all three cases were provided to The News by the Craig's office.)
Morgan said that while the creation of a county manager is not legally a change in government, she believes it is technically a change in government.
She proposed that the board hire the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia at a cost of $7,000 to educate and seek input from the public through public meetings, and prepare the county to hold a public referendum on the government change if so desired.
Schulz made a motion later to keep the status quo, by hiring a replacement administrative officer, and to accept the Carl Vinson Institute's proposal. Sims seconded the motion, but it was superseded by a substitute motion made by Ewing which eventually passed.
Morgan said she will continue to pursue avenues to protect the rights of Newton County voters, which she believes are being violated by this switch. She could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The evening was full of contention among the commissioners, as well as a divided audience. Audience members spoke out during the meeting, which is generally not allowed, clapped in support and jeered and booed in opposition. Following the vote, several residents spoke during the public comments section.
Maurice Carter said many residents were not opposed to the change, but simply the manner in which it was done, namely no public input. However, Covington Councilman Chris Smith said he approved of the county switching to a manager system that works well for the city of Covington. He said the city manager is able to work fine with six bosses.
In one of the meeting’s darkest moments, commissioners Ewing, Fleming and Henderson all denounced personal threats they said they received leading up to the vote. Ewing referenced someone attempting to get him fired from his job at the Jones, Ewing, Dobbs and Tamplin insurance company, while Fleming and Henderson said they and their families had been threatened. Henderson said he had contacted Sheriff Ezell Brown about the matter, while Ewing and Fleming declined to comment.