A simple question doesn’t have an easy answer. But it should.
Who runs Newton County’s government?
Well, it’s Chairman Keith Ellis, right? He was elected; he is paid a full-time leadership salary. But what about John Middleton — isn’t he the appointed full-time county manager? But he’s retiring. So that leaves Tom Garrett? He, after all, is the assistant county manager, the manager-in-waiting.
Newton County is a council-manager form of government, but Ellis has taken the lead for many of the county’s issues, including the hot-topic 2050 Plan.
According to a definition by the International City/Council Management Association, the council-manager form of government works with a manager appointed by the elected governing body. This manager oversees the administrative operations, implements its policies and advises it — runs the governing body. The same organization defines a mayor or chairman as a ceremonial title.
Following the public discussions on the 2050 Plan — something that has been in the works in Newton County since the early 2000s — we have been told some politicians are ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.
According to definitions in a council-manager government, Ellis shouldn’t have the authority over policy unless it is approved by the majority of commissioners. In reality the person who should be out front is the one who has power over policy. That would be the Middleton, or the person being groomed as the next manager after Middleton, Garrett.
We feel the uproar and uneasiness on the 2050 Plan could be tempered if we had inspired leadership from county officials.
We also feel that our leaders should be making the point that the 2050 Plan and its ideas brought on by the leadership collaborative were partly responsible for the location of Baxter International to our community, plus other county developments. This and other points could be made by our county managers, who do not have to worry about the thoughts of the voting public in making decisions for this generation and the next of Newton County residents.
In a recent meeting at Flat Shoals Elementary concerning the 2050 Plan, Ellis asked the crowd of about 200 to raise their hands if they had confidence in his leadership. Perhaps 15 hands were raised. For him, that was a poll of his hiring managers.
Not so for Middleton and Garrett. They can continue to work on the best interests of the county without a public and vocal outcry influencing them.
We suggest that it is past time for our five commissioners to inform their equal associate that he does not represent the majority of the board and he has no right to be the spokesman on their voted policy. We would hope that they would then have the courage to appoint their county manager designate Garrett as their official spokesman and that they make clear to Ellis that he would be better suited to do the job he was elected for which includes going to ribbon cuttings and chairing meetings.
While the BOC is explaining to the chairman what his proper place in county management is, maybe they could start the process of paying the county chairman a salary that is more appropriate for his ceremonial duties.