The structure of county government is once again on the agenda of the Board of Commissioners (BOC), which has scheduled a work session for Aug. 26, 2014. As readers may recall, this has been a topic of discussion for several months and the BOC has met with experts from both the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) and the regional planning agency. Representatives of both clearly have indicated that the current “hybrid” system of having both a full time Commission needs to be changed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of county government.
A little background is in order. In November 2011, the BOC took the controversial step of promoting county administrator John Middleton to county manager, thereby giving him the responsibility for day to day operation of county government. In effect, Mr. Middleton became the chief executive officer (CEO) of the county, removing that function from our elected commission chairman. That was a highly controversial action because the county’s legal charter clearly gives that responsibility to the elected chairman.
After the 2012 election of new BOC members Levie Maddox and John Douglas, and new Chairman Keith Ellis, there was a reasonable expectation by voters that the new commission rightly would return the job of running the county to Chairman Ellis, who voters elected to perform that function. That did not happen, so John Middleton has continued to function as county manager. Chairman Ellis reportedly has supervisory control over only county road maintenance, the vehicle fleet and county engineering operations.
Taxpayers had hope again when Middleton announced that he would retire Aug. 31, 2014. However, in a January 2014 closed executive session, the BOC suddenly promoted county engineer Tom Garrett to the position of assistant county manager or “county manager in waiting.” This signaled that there was no intention to make significant changes. After voters began to question their action, the BOC brought in the experts from ACCG in February 2014 to provide their recommendations.
After several sessions with the experts, the BOC seemed to come to a consensus that a change in the county organizational structure needed to be made. But, budget work and the 2050 Plan became their priority and no action has been taken on what to do after Mr. Middleton’s retirement. Fast forward to the BOC meeting of Aug. 19, 2014. After a contentious discussion and vote to continue work on the 2050 Plan, Maddox made a motion to hold a work session on Aug. 26, 2014 to discuss the structure of county government. He and fellow Commissioners Nancy Shultz and Lanier Sims held firm on their desire for an immediate work session despite requests from Commissioner Douglas to postpone the work session until later in September. Douglas said the later date would give the BOC more time to study the options and review recommendations of the county attorney as to a possible organizational plan. Despite those arguments, the work session was scheduled for August 26, 2014 at 6pm.
The sudden urgency to make a decision on this matter was said to be the retirement of John Middleton on Aug. 31. The same three commissioners who voted to continue the planning process also voted to hold the quick work session on county organizational structure. It is common knowledge that some BOC members and community leaders are frustrated with Chairman Keith Ellis’ handling of the 2050 Plan. The question is whether aggravation with the chairman is so great that the BOC is ready to strip him of any operational authority over county government?
Before the BOC makes a decision on this important issue, they should consider some important facts. Newton is one of only two counties out of 159 in Georgia that has both a full time county chairman and a county manager. Only six others have a full time elected chairman and a county administrator. Newton’s chairman is paid about $94,244 per year and the county manager is currently paid $85,987. Paying for multiple people to do the same job is unfair to taxpayers and guarantees inefficiency in county operations?
The chairman is the only member of the Board that was elected countywide, and he was elected to perform the functions identified in our charter. It is improper and probably illegal for the BOC to preempt the decision of voters by reducing the responsibilities of the chairman. A county manager will simply need to please 3 BOC members to keep his job, regardless of how poorly he serves the taxpayers. If the BOC wants a change to a county manager-commission form of government, they should ask the Georgia General Assembly to officially amend or change our county charter.
There are sufficient “checks and balances” in the charter for the BOC to exercise oversight of county operations and finances, and to override actions of the chairman when that is necessary. But, there is a need for a written operating agreement between the BOC and chairman that further defines the responsibilities of each. The current county charter is vague in many areas, so a written operating agreement and a clear organizational chart would certainly improve day to day operations of the county.
The great danger now is that a coalition of three members of the BOC may decide to continue the current duplicative system of having both a chairman and county manager. If that happens, the BOC must not stop there. It is absolutely necessary to clarify the roles of the chairman, the county manager and the BOC. In addition, the BOC must hire a competent, experienced county manager who can improve operations and efficiency in our county government. This position is not one where on-the-job training can occur. And, the same thing is true if the BOC decides to return to our lawful county charter and let the chairman run the county with the help of a county administrator. We will need an experienced, competent person in the role of county administrator.
I urge county taxpayers to make their wishes known to their elected county commissioner. This is a decision more crucial than the county budget or the 2050 Plan, so voters need to speak up. This will be our best opportunity in years to have an impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of Newton County government.
Larry McSwain retired from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resource Division after 32 years and was a member of the Middle Ocmulgee Regional Water Council, which studied the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir, from 2009 to 2011. He is currently an environmental consultant.