On April 26, 2014, the Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) met for its second work session to discuss the structure of county government. For those who have not followed this issue closely, the BOC is currently operating under a county manager form of government that is contrary to the county’s charter, which is also called its “enabling legislation.” The current charter calls for a full time commission chairman to be the county’s chief executive officer rather than that role being filled by a county manager. Recent action by the BOC to appoint a “county manager in waiting,” to replace retiring County Manager John Middleton brought this issue back into the public conscience. Taxpayers have spoken out in opposition to paying multiple individuals to run the day-to-day operations of the county and have questioned the BOC about subverting the will of voters who elected the chairman to manage county government.
The BOC heard consultant Dave Wills from the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia and Jim Dove from the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission caution them about the inevitable confusion and inefficiency caused by operating without a clear chain of command in the front office. Those experts were instrumental in getting the commissioners to agree that changes are needed. Chairman Keith Ellis stated that the current situation wherein Mr. Middleton supervises day-to-day county operations, presents a problem for him as chairman in that he cannot be responsive to voters but nonetheless will be held accountable by them at the ballot box. Commissioners agreed that the county needs to maintain the full time chairman- commission form of government for the present and that authority to manage county operations ought to be restored to Chairman Ellis. The five district commissioners seemed to understand that they could exercise sufficient “checks and balances” by overriding actions of the chairman with a majority vote if that is ever necessary.
While a general consensus appeared to be reached to retain our current form of government and restore the role of the chairman, the hard work of ironing out the details remains. Voters must stay vigilant to be sure that happens soon. Our current charter is outdated and does not contain adequate details about the duties of the chairman and of the district commissioners. Until such time as the charter can be updated and revised by action of the state legislature, the BOC and chairman should agree to an operating policy that better defines the role of each. Clearly, the five district commissioners should serve as the legislative branch of county government with the responsibility to enact policies and procedures, pass county ordinances, approve the county budget, set millage rates, act on rezoning requests, etc. The chairman should head the executive branch of county government and any operating policy or revised charter should give him/her the responsibility and authority to manage county government on a day to day basis. That includes supervising county departments, hiring and firing county employees, and making routine spending decisions within the confines of the county budget. Overall, the county chairman should be the person most responsible for producing an efficient and effective county government.
The chairman will need administrative help to run day-to-day operations of the county. I assume that role will fall to Mr. Tom Garrett, who will become what Mr. Middleton once was-the county administrator, chief of staff, chief of operations, or whatever title seems most appropriate. It is absolutely necessary that this position report to the chairman. The two must speak with one voice. Competence and commitment to the county’s best interest are key requirements of that position, as is objective and non-discriminatory support of the district commissioners. Political maneuvering, favoritism and self-promotion are not needed. By studying the practices of similar sized counties, a fair and reasonable salary can be established for this position, and that of the chairman.
Change is difficult for government so voters should watch for any resistance or foot dragging from individual BOC members or county staffers who may be uncomfortable with returning management authority to the chairman. Mr. Middleton and county attorney Tommy Craig were charged with developing organizational options for the commissioners to study. Let’s be sure that happens sooner rather than later and that the BOC acts promptly to implement these changes. That will signal real progress toward improving our 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.