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BOC pursues county manager over chair's objections

COVINGTON -- A majority of county commissioners reached a consensus at a work session Monday night to have the county attorney draw up a job description for a county manager position, but not before Chairman Kathy Morgan voiced strong opposition.

Commissioners Mort Ewing, J.C. Henderson and Tim Fleming informally agreed - votes are not permitted in work sessions - to create a job description for the administrative officer that specifies that employee report only to the Board of Commissioners. Presently, the job description states that position reports to the board and the chair.

According to County Attorney Tommy Craig, the change of the reporting structure requires by Georgia law a change in title to county manager.

He disagreed with Morgan on whether that constitutes a change in the form of government, which would require approval by the Georgia General Assembly. Craig said the Supreme Court has ruled on at least three separate occasions that it does not. Morgan said it does according to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

But Craig said commissioners have authority to create a county manager position under home rule powers granted in Title 36 of the Georgia Code.

The ordinance reads in part: "The governing authority of any county of this state or the General Assembly may create... the office of county manager and may vest in such office powers, duties, and responsibilities of an administrative nature. The qualifications, method of selection, appointment, compensation, tenure, and such other related matters pertaining to the office of county manager shall be provided for by the governing authority of the county."

Morgan said the creation of a county manager dilutes the authority of chairman bestowed by the county charter and changes the job description voters elected her to fulfill. The charter states the chairman is in charge of day-to-day operations of the county. The administrative officer assists with various operations and reports to the chair and the board. Morgan said she would support a change to a county manager form of government only if the voters make that choice. She said a county manager would decrease accountability to voters by making a non-elected official responsible for the day-to-day operations and encouraging alliances, with that official focused on keeping at least three board members happy in order to stay employed.

"I have a real issue about balancing power, checks and balances ... I also am a proponent of voters' right to choose," she said. Morgan said if the board chooses to pursue the matter, a committee should be formed to educate citizens, consultants should be hired to advise the board and the matter should be brought before the voters.

But Ewing said he wants reporting limited to the board, stating that during the last three years - Morgan's term - the administrative officer position has "not been allowed to function." Ewing did not elaborate except to say that in the prior eight years of his term, the position functioned well, with a balanced budget and SPLOST proposals presented without delay or discord.

"Changing the title and job description without changing reportability will not solve the problem," he said.

Morgan said she has never restricted the administrative officer from providing information to commissioners.

"I know this board has an issue with the authority given to the chairman. You're supposed to make a request for work through me and I've allowed you that. I've never restricted that," she said.

Morgan claimed Administrative Officer John Middleton resigned in July -- his last day is Dec. 15 -- due to the board's failure to heed his advice and raise the millage rate during the budget process.

"We were given duties to do our job and I'm doing the job as elected by the voters of Newton County and I'm trying to understand why the board does not want us to function as the charter indicated and as elected by the voters of Newton County, the same voters who elected you. I have not restricted Mr. Middleton from doing his job," she said. "He did his job and this board did not accept the budget prepared by our professional manager."

Commissioners Nancy Schulz and Lanier Sims did not consent to moving forward with a county manager position. Schulz said she's open to learning more, but said there's no need to rush into anything and stressed the voters should be educated and consulted first. She said the job description needs to be clarified, but opposed changing the reporting structure, adding that having the position report to the board would be "like having six bosses, and that's difficult." She said the position should report to the board and the chair, "but ultimately, the buck stops in one place." She added that she has always received timely responses from Middleton when she makes requests for information.

"I don't believe we should change to where this administrative officer position reports solely to this board and not through a chain of command because that becomes a political football and that's not what we need for a strong government," she said.

A vote could happen as early as Tuesday night, when Craig brings the job description back to the board. The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Newton County Historic Courthouse.