The Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) could have legislation for a new charter ready to take to its General Assembly delegation as early as the first of December.
The BOC held a work session Monday night to continue discussing the county’s form of government, working from recommendations made by a citizens’ committee in September. If adopted the legislation for the new charter would move the county from a form of government run by an elected county chair to a form that divides responsibilities between an elected county chair and a hired county manager.
The session was a continuation of an Oct. 14 work session, which looked at questions to help guide the discussion prepared by Ronnie Cowan, chair of the Form of Government Citizens Committee.
Two of the issues that were addressed at Monday’s work session centered on giving the chair veto power on resolutions and if the chair should be a full- or part-time position.
The citizens committee had recommended that the chair, who would continue to serve as the Chief Executive Officer for the county and be the “face” of Newton County to local, regional, state and federal agencies and organizations, would need to be a full-time position. So, too, would the position of county manager, who would have authority over the operational, supervisory and financial operations of the county.
The BOC would continue to have authority over department heads, and the chair would have the right to recommend the hiring or termination of the county manager.
“When I think about the duties and responsibilities of a full-time chair, I think the individual should work with other agencies in county, in state, with delegation, with economic development, and others,” said Commissioner Nancy Schulz, District 3. “I think chair should have connectivity with public. It would be a true CEO, connecting all [stakeholders].
“The chair would be like a symphony conductor,” she said.
Originally a proponent of the chair being a part-time position, Commissioner John Douglas, District 1, said felt it was important that the commissioners speak as one voice as often as possible. Since the other four commissioners favored a full-time chair, he said he would support that decision.
At the earlier meeting, the commissioners had been unable to agree on whether or not the chair should have veto power, and, if so, would the commissioners be able to override the veto.
However, at Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Lanier Sims, District 2, and Commissioner Levie Maddox, District 5, said they both had considered the issue and agreed the chair should have veto power with a corresponding super majority override power in the commissioners hand.
“One of the things I was on the fence about was the veto power of the chair,” Sims said. “The goal of the whole exercise [to change the charter] is the balance of power. Because it was a 3-2 vote that changed our form of government [in 2011], I’ve been reconsidering giving the chair limited veto power.”
Maddox said he favored the chair having veto power, “but the role of the chair needs to be clearly defined.”
He also said the role of the county manager also needed to be clearly defined. He also asked the BOC to increase commissioners’ base salary, currently, by charter, 20 percent of the sheriff’s salary, according to Attorney Jenny Carter of the W. T. Craig Law Firm.
Schulz said she wouldn’t have a problem with that as long as the rate of pay for county staff positions better reflected current salaries in the field, and that the raise wouldn’t be a burden on tax payers.
If the salary for commissioners is raised, it would not be effective until Jan. 1, 2021.
Commissioner J. C. Henderson, District 4, questioned why the BOC wouldn’t consider taking the question of changing the charter to the voters, saying he thought they were rushing. He also asked how the legislative delegation would decide whether or not to take the proposed new charter to the General Assembly.
Both Schulz and Maddox, as well as Chair Keith Ellis, said they had spoken with Sen. Rick Jeffares about the process. Schulz and Maddox said the senator said the delegation would prefer if the BOC was unanimous in voting to change the charter, but would accept a 4-1 vote.
“What they are most concerned about what was what has been in place since 2011,” Schulz, who spoke to Jeffares twice, said. “They know it’s been very disruptive for the county. They want what’s best for the county.”
“They want us to be the best judge of [what’s in the best interest of the county],” said Douglas.
“Sen. Jeffares told me as long as we could show transparency and heavy participation [in the process] from citizens, a 4-1 vote would be okay,” said Maddox.
He added he thought there needed to be language added to an updated charter about posting quarterly financial reports online or in the newspapers, as well as a phrase about ethics and censure for misconduct.
The legislative delegation representing Newton County consists of Sen. Jeffares, and Representatives Dave Belton, Pam Dickerson, State Rep. Dale Rutledge and Andy Welch. The sixth member would be the person elected senator in the special election this fall.
Carter told the BOC that the delegation usually decides at the beginning of the Assembly decision what the policies will be about accepting legislation to take to the houses.
Henderson questioned if the county manager’s position would be an annual appointment. When Douglas said the county manager would be a county employee, Henderson wondered why the county attorney and county clerk had to be appointed every year.
Carter said there was nothing in the current charter that made the appointment of the clerk or attorney an annual appointment. “That’s just been the practice,” she said. “They all serve at the pleasure of the board, regardless of whether they are hired or appointed.”
Interim County Manager Harry Owens warned against making the county manager an annual appointment.
“I don’t think there will be anyone with the right experience or skills willing to apply if the position is appointed annually,” he said. “We want to attract people who have knowledge, skills and qualifications needed for the job. If you want to be an employer of choice, I’d recommend a contract with termination agreement.”
“I have no problem with treating the county manager as an employee,” said Sims, “and giving them a contract. I have no problem with not having to reappoint the county clerk every year. The county attorney is something different.”
When asked by Maddox how long it would take to write an updated, modern charter, Carter said she would be able to bring back questions that needed to be addressed to the next BOC meeting Tuesday night, Nov. 3, and have a draft of the new charter for the second November BOC meeting.
The proposed new charter would be posted online and citizens will be able to make comments or raise concerns before the BOC gives it to the delegation in December.