After four of the five commissioners serving Newton County cast votes of no confidence against the leadership of Chair Keith Ellis, statements and interviews have provided explanations for the vote. A statement from the chair also recounted his reaction to the motion. Here’s a look behind the motion.
Commissioner Douglas presents motion
The BOC voted on the motion presented by District 1 Commissioner John Douglas at the special called meeting Thursday night. The call for a vote of no confidence gave an overview of the growing conflict between the chair, the board and the county staff, saying, "Over the past three years, county government has lurched from one crisis to another. Each succeeding crisis has been more severe than the previous crisis ..."
The motion continued with, "The most serious problem has been conflicts between the chairman and the county manager on one hand and members of the board of commissioners on the other hand. These problems have escalated to the point that most government progress has stopped in the county. That ongoing conflict has also caused a serious loss of key county employees, many wasted dollars and a general perception that Newton County government has no clue how to operate or which way to turn."
While it has no legal ramifications, the motion is a public showing of disfavor from the board for the chair. Ellis will remain as Chair of the county through December after choosing not to run for a second term.
Chair issues response
On Friday, Ellis issued a statement, responding to the vote, recognizing the conflict between the BOC and chair. “We, as elected officials should focus more on the duty to the citizens than playground retribution, show boating and soap box stumping for re-election.”
Ellis said the vote of no confidence was related to actions that took place on Tuesday night when the chair cast the tie breaking vote, accepting the appeal of the developers of a 116-acre subdivision, Autumn Trace, on the east side.
District 1 Commissioner John Douglas had been in favor of denying the appeal, but could not vote because he had testified against the development at a planning and zoning public hearing. (See story “BOC meeting shadowed by conflict,” http://www.covnews.com/section/1/article/200472/.)
In his statement, Ellis said “I believe I protected the citizens and corrected the zoning problem in our [development regulations]. We would have had a large lawsuit which would we would fight and eventually lose. “
District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz agreed with Ellis, saying in a later interview, “Autumn Trace was a painful decision for me as well. That went against my personal desire, but based on the fact that we would have ended up in a pretty substantial law suit, the chair made the right decision that night. He made a decision based on what was in the best interest of the county based on the information provided.
“You fix where the gaps are that would expose us to potential legal challenges, which we did in the most part,” Schulz said. “The chair made the right decision.”
“I wasn’t keeping score,” she said, “[saying] ‘well I’m voting with this group this time, or that group that time.’ My vote of no confidence was based on the fact that the chair repeatedly mistreated staff.”
District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson abstained from the vote, but during commissioners’ comments Thursday night, indicated his unhappiness. He said he had forgiven Douglas when the latter made comments on Facebook considered racist by many in the community. (See story “Douglas under fire over ‘racial words’,” at http://www.covnews.com/archives/60121/.)
He also reminded the District 1 Commissioner that the chair had stood by him during the resulting fall out, which included media coverage throughout the state and months of criticism and calls for Douglas’s resignation.
Treatment of county staff cited
At Tuesday’s meeting, Ellis had called County Engineer Aaron Wadley to the podium, asking him to explain about the leakage at the landfill over the holidays. According to Ellis in his statement, “When speaking with the employee [Wadley ] on Monday, I did not reap suitable answers. I felt I had little choice. My methods may have been poor. And I never intended personal harm.
“I feel the responsibility of my name being on all of the landfill documents (such as the permits) allows me to be in the know,” Ellis said in his statement. “At the time we did not have a County Manager, and my only link to the Landfill was Mr. Wadley. I will be asked to sign purchase orders and contracts relating to the work being done. That fiscal responsibility is one each taxpayer will want me to continue to do my job.”
The chairman’s questioning at the BOC meeting on Tuesday seems to have directly contributed to the resignation of Wadley on Wednesday. In his letter, he said he was disappointed with the chair’s actions during the last three public meetings and believed Ellis had been trying to “discredit staff and damage my name and that of your own solid waste engineer.” (See story “County Engineer Aaron Wadley resigns,” http://www.covnews.com/section/1/article/200468/.]
At least two of the commissioners agreed with Wadley’s concerns.
District 2 Commissioner Lanier Sims said in an interview with The Covington News that the conflict had been building for the last 18 months. He said the growing inability of the chair to work with the board and staff conflicted with the commissioners’ responsibility “to lead our staff members. They depend on us to lead, not to publically tongue-lash them. That was probably the last piece that really gave me no confidence in our chairman.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “My role is to be here for the employees and the citizens at the end of the day, and to make sure their voice is heard.”
Schulz agreed with Sims. “For me personally, it was a painful decision to have to make. When I witnessed the public treatment of staff, I just can’ tolerate that. It didn’t happen just once. It happened repeatedly. If we hadn’t done that [voted no confidence], I firmly believe we would have had a mass exodus of key staff.
“I hated what it came to,” she said, “but it just continued to escalate.”
“We know this [vote of no confidence] is only symbolic,” Sims said. “We’re all open to working together and we all have to get on the same page in working together for the citizens of Newton County. The citizens I’ve talked to believe we aren’t working together, but I think we are. The board and the chair aren’t working together.”
BOC wants to move forward
District 5 Commissioner Levie Maddox issued a statement via email asking citizens to “pray for the elected and unelected leadership at this point.
“In addition, we need the community’s elders to step in and influence the current situation to help improve the environment,” he wrote. “With that, we can find a way to put the community’s future about ourselves and move the county towards great prosperity.
“The Chairman is a good man with a strong faith and family,” Maddox continued. “I understand that key element and hope to be a good neighbor and help him get through this difficult time. Our future is bright. Along with my optimism, I'm committed to applying my time and energy to help move us forward.”
Schulz echoed that commitment.” I’m hopeful that we can let a bit of time pass and heal this wound, and work together. I will do everything I can to heal that wound; but I just [couldn’t] stand by and see staff treated that way.”
“I will continue to do my job as best as I can for the citizens whom elected me,” Ellis said in his statement Friday. “I will not be silenced ... We have big problems in this county, landfill spills, possible indictments and allegedly stealing within departments. So considering these extreme issues, the Bis Board takes action to further impede the Chairman’s ability to carry out the duties of his office. And, the citizens of Newton County have low confidence in the entire Board.
“Do the citizens of Newton County have a chance?” he asked. “Do we work together? Do we continue this absurd behavior? Will it take a new election? We have one year together to serve our citizens. Will we have a meeting of the minds? Can we serve our citizens?
“That would be my preference,” he concluded.
A vote of no confidence against the chair has not been cast for at least 22 years. However, in 2011, three of the five sitting commissioners voted to strip most of the chair’s powers from then Chair Kathy Morgan. The action negated the county charter’s defined role of the elected chair, limiting the chair’s responsibilities to oversight of roads and bridges.
A work session on solid waste has been scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 6:30 p.m. in the Historic Courthouse, 1124 Clark Street, Covington.