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No resolution on county form of gov.
Commissioners discuss the future form of government for Newton County. - photo by Rob Dewig

When Tom Garrett is officially appointed as the new Newton County manager next week, his duties will be a little unclear.

Since late 2011, the county’s form of government has been up in the air, with both a full-time elected county chairman and a full-time county manager, in the form of the retiring John Middleton. Garrett, now the assistant county manager, has been groomed to replace Middleton, and Garrett will have no assistant once he takes Middleton’s place.

And that’s where the certainty ends.

Tuesday night, the Board of Commissioners met for a workshop about the county’s form of government, inviting Dave Wills of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) to facilitate the discussion. At night’s end, Wills agreed to provide County Commission Chairman Keith Ellis with examples of how other governments work in the state within 30 days. The commissioners, for their part, agreed to try to come up with something definitive by year’s end.

The current rules are “pretty clear,” commissioner John Douglas said. “Tom (Garrett) will be filling the shoes of John Middleton, and Keith Ellis will be filling the shoes of Keith Ellis.”

The overall problem is clear, even if a solution is not. In November 2011, the commission voted to promote Middleton from administrator to manager, stripping the day-to-day operations from the then-commission chairman. But the chairman’s duties of hiring and firing county employees, and all things road-related, remained when Ellis was elected.
That has created confusion for county employees, commissioner Nancy Shultz said. She said she favors a strong chairman form of government as called for by the county’s charter. No matter what, she said, the commission’s decision needs to be clear and contain checks and balances to ensure nobody goes “rogue” in future governments – be it the manager, the chairman or three commissioners taking power unto themselves with an unshakable majority.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he wants to go back to the pre-2011 form of government with a strong chairman. Trust the voters, he said. “I trust them.” If the chairman isn’t doing his or her job, a recall is always an option.

Douglas, who in an April work session said he favored going back to the earlier form of government, said he’s “moved to the middle” since then. A chairman should be chairman, but with rapidly evolving technology a management trained professional might be needed. “I can see both sides of the argument right now,” Douglas said.

But it’s all about time and timing, he said. At the commission’s Aug. 19 meeting, Douglas made a motion to push the proposed workshop to Sept. 18 to give commissioners a chance to think and citizens a chance to comment on it. Although his motion was defeated, he said he wound up with what he wanted out of the workshop — a delay, more time to think.

The lack of clarity in the county’s current form of government is objectively clear. The official table of organization, which Ellis passed around the room, shows the chairman and board of commissioners on top as co-equals, with the county manager answering to the board. The chairman is specifically tasked with “roads and bridges,” while all other departments fall under the manager’s control.

But the bizarre pre-2011 form of government doesn’t include the board of commissioners at all. It has everyone answering to the chairman.

Commissioners Levie Maddox and Lanier Sims lean toward a strong manager form of government. Maddox said a “professional running day to day operations” is needed, and a finance administrator reporting directly to the Board of Commissioners might be a good idea, as well.

Wills, for his part, said there seemed to be little urgency in changing a system that has been in place for four years now, but that a deadline does exist. Any changes should be made before the end of the year, in case some tweaks are needed to the charter by the state legislature. County attorney W. Thomas Craig said the state’s home rule amendment might preclude the need for the legislature’s involvement, but that, too, was not clear Tuesday night.

Regardless, Wills said it would be best if the chairman’s and manager’s roles were nailed down by the next election cycle, when Ellis is up for reelection.

A referendum is possible, Wills said, but time is again a problem. If the commissioners go that route, they’d have to pay for a special election in 2015 (if they can; again, Craig said, there is some uncertainty whether referendums can be paid for out of the county’s general fund) or wait until 2016, in which case it would take effect in 2020.

There’s nothing illegal going on, Shultz said, but the resolution passed in 2011 leaves things “kind of gray” and definitely “caused confusion on the staff.”

Douglas told the commissioners he hopes whatever form of government is adopted retains the right for commissioners to go straight to county employees with concerns. Wills balked a little at that. Turns out, the county’s charter says commissioners shouldn’t go directly to employees; rather, concerns should be directed to the chairman, who will pass them along.

But that’s what got the county into trouble in the first place, Henderson said: an unresponsive commission chair.

For now, things won’t change.

Whatever changes come, Douglas said, the extra time should be enough to “do it right.”