COVINGTON - Newton County will operate under the direction of a county manager, commissioners agreed by a 3 to 2 vote Tuesday night, and Administrative Officer John Middleton has been appointed to that position. Middleton resigned last summer; his last day was to be December 15.
Commissioner Mort Ewing asked Middleton during the meeting if he would remain on if he was appointed county manager and he responded that he would, "pending working details out with the board." Middleton's salary will not increase. His office will be moved from the Historic Courthouse, also the location of the chairman's office, to the Administrative Building.
The county manager will be responsible for all departments with the exception of roads and bridges, which will remain under the authority of the chairman. The county manager will report solely to the Board of Commissioners and not the chair. However, the county manager will provide departmental updates to the chair and the board. The chair will retain the ability to hire and fire. However, the county charter requires majority approval of the board for hiring and firing, except in the roads and bridges department.
The discussion leading up to the vote was long and impassioned, with audience members frequently applauding, yelling out and booing throughout.
Commissioner Nancy Schulz attempted to delay the action until more information could be obtained, saying she's concerned the manager won't be directly responsive to voters. Schulz made the motion to retain the county administrative officer position, meanwhile commissioning the Carl Vinson Institute of Government to hold public meetings to educate citizens and consult on a change to a county manager form of government at a cost of $7,000. After the citizenry is educated, Schulz recommended holding a referendum and if approved by votes, requesting that the Georgia General Assembly pass enabling legislation. Commissioner Lanier Sims seconded the motion.
Ewing then offered a substitute motion to pass a job description, organizational chart and resolution creating the job of county manager, which won approval of Commissioners Tim Fleming and J.C. Henderson.
Schulz said there appears to be an overlap between the job description of the chairman and county manager. The county's charter makes the chairman the administrative officer of the county.
"To the extent possible we've respected the inherent power, duties and authority of the chair. There's no question the day-to-day operations of the county under this job description is vested in another individual," said County Attorney Tommy Craig.
The new duties of the county manager appear to be in conflict with the charter, which states that the board cannot contact any employees or personnel of the county to request any service or action except through the chairman.
But Craig said the job description has been "tailored to address any peculiarities that might exist with the Newton County charter."
Craig has advised the board the new position is not a change in the form of government and said the Supreme Court has upheld that. But Chairman Kathy Morgan said while legally it may not be, it strips the authority of the chair granted by the citizens of the county. Morgan said no change should happen without public input.
"I don't hear any respect for the voters or the chairman's position. I believe in the political process. I believe in the Democratic process. I will respect the action you take but I want you to know I will continue to pursue whatever I deem to be necessary to protect the rights of the voters of this county as long as I'm in this office," she said, and the crowd erupted into applause.
Morgan said after the meeting she has hired a personal attorney that she is paying with her own money to advise her on her legal options.
Though several citizens spoke in favor of the change during public comments, the overall tone of the meeting was one of anger by the populace.
"I think the voters ought to decide," one man yelled out. "I do too," said another audience member. "Ya'll don't run everything," another one chimed in.
Ewing, Fleming and Henderson said they have been threatened since publicly announcing a week ago their intentions to hire a county manager.
Henderson said he and his family have been threatened and Ewing said an individual attempted to have him fired from his job with insurance company Jones Ewing Dobbs and Tamplin.
"It's deplorable some would stoop to that level, to threaten an elected official,to threaten their families, to threaten their children," said Fleming.
Henderson also addressed accusations that Ewing and Fleming are advising him how to vote.
"I'm 55 years of age and nobody tells me what to do," he said.