Tuesday night’s Board of Commissioners meeting saw a coup d'état of sorts, when three of our commissioners decided to change the way our county will be governed. We have voiced our disapproval of the “Gang of Three” in the past, and again we feel they have gone too far.
The commissioners chose to create a position of county manager that reports directly to the commission while bypassing the commission chairman, and in doing so likely guaranteed turmoil and chaos within the county government for months, perhaps years, to come.
There are times when a county manager form of government makes sense, and done correctly it may even be the best for Newton County. But what happened this week was a long way from being done correctly.
Typically the move to a county manager involves a reworking of laws at the legislative level to redefine who does what, and then asking the voters to give their opinion on the proposed changes at the polls, usually after the holding public hearings to make sure everyone understands what is involved. That’s exactly what happened in nearby Barrow County, where voters gave their approval to a new system of government earlier this month.
But our commissioners decided not to trust the ballot box in their effort to revamp the county, choosing instead to orchestrate on their own a new form of government for Newton.
And now we officially have a mess. The county chairman still has the power to hire and fire personnel, but only with approval of the board. The new county manager meanwhile has the responsibility of directing and supervising county employees, but can’t hire and fire them.
At the same time, the manager has been directed not to report to the commission chair, but rather to the board. So the person responsible for making sure county government works efficiently is not supposed to report to the person responsible for hiring and firing of county staff. Makes sense, right?
And what about the fact that a majority of voters in the county selected the commission chair to be their elected representative in that position. Those county voters have effectively been silenced by a majority of the board. What happens in the next election for commission chair? Exactly what job will that person be campaigning to fill?
A coup d’état generally takes place when there is tyranny or a general lack of leadership. Lack of leadership was cited as the reason for transfer of power from the Chairman to the board through the county manager. To be fair, during the last two administrations the board has suffered from a general lack of leadership from our county commission chair.
While this transfer is legal, both the speed and the way that is was executed left citizens in our community wondering what happens next? Our democracy operates on a system of checks and balances, preventing one group from making all the decisions. What will be the ramifications of having three commissioners who exercise total control?
Big decisions resulting in dramatic change that are undertaken to solve what are perceived to be short-term problems are seldom a good idea. What happens in a future election when the power on the board shifts a different way? Do we just willy-nilly eliminate the county manager again and go back to what we had?
If a case can be made for revamping the government, it needs to be done in a way that lets the people being governed have a say so in what happens. Those who would do otherwise are enamored with their own power and disdainful of the importance of those they serve.
This change should have been brought about by the voters of the county, not by a majority of three commissioners. We feel that there will be unintended consequences for Newton County that the architects of this coup d’état have not and could not have considered, and we hope that these will not lead us to further challenging times.
Over the next couple of weeks we will be reporting on how this coup has come to pass, what the added costs will be and who the official county leader will really be.