No res­o­lu­tion on county form of gov­ern­ment

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - ROB DEWIG rdewig@cov­news.com

When Tom Gar­rett is of­fi­cially ap­pointed as the new New­ton County man­ager next week, his du­ties will be a lit­tle un­clear.

Since late 2011, the county’s form of gov­ern­ment has been up in the air, with both a full-time elected county chair­man and a full-time county man­ager, in the form of the re­tir­ing John Mid­dle­ton. Gar­rett, now the as­sis­tant county man­ager, has been groomed to re­place Mid­dle­ton, and Gar­rett will have no as­sis­tant once he takes Mid­dle­ton’s place. And that’s where the cer­tainty ends. Tues­day night, the Board of Com­mis­sion­ers met for a work­shop about the county’s form of gov­ern­ment, invit­ing Dave Wills of the As­so­ci­a­tion of County Com­mis­sion­ers of Ge­or­gia (ACCG) to fa­cil­i­tate the dis­cus­sion. At night’s end, Wills agreed to pro­vide County Com­mis­sion Chair­man Keith El­lis with ex­am­ples of how other gov­ern­ments work in the state within 30 days. The com­mis­sion­ers, for their part, agreed to try to come up with some­thing de­fin­i­tive by year’s end.

The cur­rent rules are “pretty clear,” com­mis­sioner John Dou­glas said. “Tom (Gar­rett) will be fill­ing the shoes of John Mid­dle­ton, and Keith El­lis will be fill­ing the shoes of Keith El­lis.”

The over­all prob­lem is clear, even if

a so­lu­tion is not. In Novem­ber 2011, the com­mis­sion voted to pro­mote Mid­dle­ton from ad­min­is­tra­tor to man­ager, strip­ping the day-to-day op­er­a­tions from the then-com­mis­sion chair­man. But the chair­man’s du­ties of hir­ing and fir­ing county em­ploy­ees, and all things road-re­lated, re­mained when El­lis was elected.

That has cre­ated con­fu­sion for county em­ploy­ees, com­mis­sioner Nancy Shultz said. She said she fa­vors a strong chair­man form of gov­ern­ment as called for by the county’s char­ter. No mat­ter what, she said, the com­mis­sion’s de­ci­sion needs to be clear and con­tain checks and bal­ances to en­sure no­body goes “rogue” in future gov­ern­ments – be it the man­ager, the chair­man or three com­mis­sion­ers tak­ing power unto them­selves with an un­shak­able ma­jor­ity.

Com­mis­sioner J.C. Hen­der­son said he wants to go back to the pre2011 form of gov­ern­ment with a strong chair­man. Trust the vot­ers, he said. “I trust them.” If the chair­man isn’t do­ing his or her job, a re­call is always an op­tion.

Dou­glas, who in an April work ses­sion said he fa­vored go­ing back to the ear­lier form of gov­ern­ment, said he’s “moved to the mid­dle” since then. A chair­man should be chair­man, but with rapidly evolv­ing tech­nol­ogy a man­age­ment trained pro­fes­sional might be needed. “I can see both sides of the ar­gu­ment right now,” Dou­glas said.

But it’s all about time and tim­ing, he said. At the com­mis­sion’s Aug. 19 meet­ing, Dou­glas made a mo­tion to push the pro­posed work­shop to Sept. 18 to give com­mis­sion­ers a chance to think and cit­i­zens a chance to com­ment on it. Al­though his mo­tion was de­feated, he said he wound up with what he wanted out of the work­shop — a de­lay, more time to think.

The lack of clar­ity in the county’s cur­rent form of gov­ern­ment is ob­jec­tively clear. The of­fi­cial ta­ble of or­ga­ni­za­tion, which El­lis passed around the room, shows the chair­man and board of com­mis­sion­ers on top as co-equals, with the county man­ager an­swer­ing to the board. The chair­man is specif­i­cally tasked with “roads and bridges,” while all other de­part­ments fall un­der the man­ager’s con­trol.

But the bizarre pre-2011 form of gov­ern­ment doesn’t in­clude the board of com­mis­sion­ers at all. It has ev­ery­one an­swer­ing to the chair­man.

Com­mis­sion­ers Le­vie Maddox and Lanier Sims lean to­ward a strong man­ager form of gov­ern­ment. Maddox said a “pro­fes­sional run­ning day to day op­er­a­tions” is needed, and a fi­nance ad­min­is­tra­tor re­port­ing di­rectly to the Board of Com­mis­sion­ers might be a good idea, as well.

Wills, for his part, said there seemed to be lit­tle ur­gency in chang­ing a sys­tem that has been in place for four years now, but that a dead­line does ex­ist. Any changes should be made be­fore the end of the year, in case some tweaks are needed to the char­ter by the state leg­is­la­ture. County at­tor­ney W. Thomas Craig said the state’s home rule amend­ment might pre­clude the need for the leg­is­la­ture’s in­volve­ment, but that, too, was not clear Tues­day night.

Re­gard­less, Wills said it would be best if the chair­man’s and man­ager’s roles were nailed down by the next elec­tion cy­cle, when El­lis is up for re­elec­tion.

A ref­er­en­dum is pos­si­ble, Wills said, but time is again a prob­lem. If the com­mis­sion­ers go that route, they’d have to pay for a spe­cial elec­tion in 2015 (if they can; again, Craig said, there is some un­cer­tainty whether ref­er­en­dums can be paid for out of the county’s gen­eral fund) or wait un­til 2016, in which case it would take ef­fect in 2020.

There’s noth­ing il­le­gal go­ing on, Shultz said, but the res­o­lu­tion passed in 2011 leaves things “kind of gray” and def­i­nitely “caused con­fu­sion on the staff.”

Dou­glas told the com­mis­sion­ers he hopes what­ever form of gov­ern­ment is adopted re­tains the right for com­mis­sion­ers to go straight to county em­ploy­ees with con­cerns. Wills balked a lit­tle at that. Turns out, the county’s char­ter says com­mis­sion­ers shouldn’t go di­rectly to em­ploy­ees; rather, con­cerns should be di­rected to the chair­man, who will pass them along.

But that’s what got the county into trou­ble in the first place, Hen­der­son said: an un­re­spon­sive com­mis­sion chair. For now, things won’t change. What­ever changes come, Dou­glas said, the ex­tra time should be enough to “do it right.”

Rob Dewig/The Cov­ing­ton News

The BOC meet­ing Tues­day night ended with no real res­o­lu­tion on the form of gov­ern­ment.

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