COVINGTON -- Commissioners are entering discussions about whether to change the county's form of government.
The issue was brought up during a recent board discussion of the job description for the administrative officer position. John Middleton resigned from that position over the summer; his last day will be in December.
Chairman Kathy Morgan said she does not personally support a change to a county manager form of government, but added that if that's the direction the board is headed, the matter should go before voters.
Currently, the county operates under an elected executive form of government, with day-to-day administrative duties of the county the responsibility of the chair, according to the county charter. If a switch is made to a county manager form of government, the chair would become largely a figurehead, Morgan said, and daily operations would be handed over to an nonelected professional that does not have direct accountability to the people.
Morgan said the county manager form of government leaves open too much room for influence and control over a non-elected official by individual commissioners, with fewer checks and balances.
"If you have a really strong district commissioner, one or two of them can take away the voters' influence on decision-making. Things may not be as openly discussed publicly," she said. "If (commissioners) redirect the day- to-day duties from the way the charter currently reads, they've changed the form of government and that's the part I don't agree with. If we want to change the form of government we need to take it to committees and go county-wide educating the populace on the forms of government and let the citizens make that decision."
Morgan said she'd like the matter to go before voters in a referendum.
The current job description states that the administrative officer is responsible for assisting the chairman and Board of Commissioners with management and operation of the county; supervising administrative offices; overseeing county functions falling under the authority of the BOC; and coordinating special projects.
The board changed the job description in 2005 to state that the position should report to the board and the chair. Morgan said those broad terms have led to confusion for employees over who is in charge and individual commissioners taking up the time of the administrative officer with requests pertaining to their districts versus the county as a whole. A county manager form of government, where the county manager reports to the board and the chair is out of the loop, would only add to those troubles, she said.
Morgan said she would prefer to divide the one position into two or three, with a separate employee overseeing finances, operations and communications, but said she understands the limitations with current revenues.
"I'm fine with the position. The hierarchy needs to remain as it is or we need to go to the public. If you are elected to do a job, no one should come through the back door and use a policy decision to change the form of government. We need to ask are these changes about running a better, more efficient government, or are these changes about influence and usurping authority?" she said.
Morgan said the current form of government offers checks and balances. The chair does not have veto power but can vote in the case of a tie. The board also has power to reverse by majority vote an administrative decision made by the chair.
District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz said the administrative officer job needs to be better defined overall and agreed any government form change should go before the public. Such a measure would require approval from the Georgia General Assembly, she noted.
"I would really like to explore if our current form of government is best, given our population size. I don't think we need to do that in one work session. It takes time to really study that and have the public participate and that needs to be something that goes before the voters. That's not something that three commissioners need to have that much power to determine," Schulz said, referring to the number required for a majority vote.
Schulz said she would like to discuss the possibility of consolidation and whether the current overall county government structure, with the unincorporated county and five municipalities, is the most efficient.
"How much money is going to support government in Newton County and are we utilizing all those resources most effectively or are we duplicating functions?" she said.
The county will hold a work session on the administrative officer job description at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7, at the Newton County Historic Courthouse on the Square. The public is invited to come and listen, but public comments are typically not allowed in work sessions.