We all learned recently that Tom Garrett would be resigning as County Manager after a short eight months on the job.
Tom is a capable young man educated in public administration and evidencing the personal character of one committed to a life of public service. Unfortunately Tom was thrust into the job at a time when there was a lack of clarity in the lines of authority in our county government with little opportunity to be mentored by someone with experience in managing the business of government in a political setting.
This result was unfortunate for both Tom and Newton County, but as the old adage notes, when God closes one door he opens another. This was true for Tom who will be Director of Public Works for Barrow County, and it is true for Newton County which now has an opportunity to bring in the right county manager to fit the time and circumstance in which Newton County now finds itself.
In response to an accurate evaluation of what citizens told the Board of Commissioners in a recent public hearing on the form of government for Newton County, the Board returned to the chairman the powers his job included until the 2011 coup in which the powers of Chairperson Kathy Morgan were diminished and the 2014 further stripping of the Chairman’s powers by the current Board.
As the Board embarks on naming a new county manager it would make a lot of sense to create a job description of precisely what functions and responsibilities that person will be expected to render the county. The Board, in conjunction with the granting back to the Chairman the powers that job had under the enabling legislation, also appointed a citizens committee to make recommendations for a restatement of the form of government under which our County government will operate after the 2016 election.
Consequently, the job description for the job of county manager might be significantly different in 2017 than today, so it is generally thought that the county manager selected would be named to serve until after the next election when the newly elected Board of Commissioners would revisit the job of chief administrator of the county with whatever job description would be appropriate at that time.
The next 20 months are going to be some of the most impactful times, however, in the county’s history. Difficult and contentious issues which must be addressed include solid waste collection and the landfill, the decision on how to proceed on a reservoir mired in controversy and regulatory problems, the specifics of the form of government the county will operate under and how the county will purchase professional services. With few good answers and a budget shortfall which will be difficult to tame, we must also deal with the normal matters of operational governance which all local governments face daily.
These challenges call for a county manager who has the education, experience and characteristics necessary to operate in a highly charged political setting to manage the operations and finances of our county government. His stewardship of the day to day functioning of government is absolutely critical to free the Chairman and the Board to address the complex issues they must deal with immediately.
That means we need a professional administrator with a background in both operations and finance. It is no time to bring in a political person without operational experience or education to handle these challenges. Consider what kind of administrator private industry would hire to manage a business with hundreds of employees and a budget of over fifty million dollars. It would certainly be a professional manager.
We cannot afford a caretaker or seat filler. Political party affiliation, personal friendship and common political philosophy cannot form the basis of the decision. We cannot afford a good old boy to just hold the seat for the next year and a half. While the person ultimately appointed may only serve for 20 months, it will undoubtedly be the most crucial 20 months our county government has faced in the memory of most of us.
Names that come to mind as illustrative of the characteristics we should be looking for include Steve Horton, retired Covington City Manager, or Brian Allen, retired Gwinnett County transportation administrator, because they are professional administrators and not political operatives.
Newton County faces a number of challenges and has a great opportunity to choose someone to help us meet those challenges as the professional administrator we so desperately need. We, as citizens, must make our Board of Commissioners understand that this is no time to make a political appointment to maintain the status quo. They must seize the opportunity and not squander it for the sake of politics. That is what leadership and common sense demand.