Candidates answer questions on county government structure

COVINGTON — District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson said Monday he would support changing the current management structure of the county government, despite the fact that his was one of three votes that put the structure in place three years ago.

Henderson, who is seeking re-election, made his comments during a candidate forum sponsored by Smart Growth Newton County at the Washington Street Community Center. Henderson faces opposition from two other Democrats in the May 20 primary — Sonya Hunte and Jacquelyn Smith.

Newton currently has a county manager who is responsible for all departments with the exception of roads. The management structure was put into place in 2011 over public opposition while former chairman Kathy Morgan was in office. The change was designed to shift power away from the chairman.

Since then, County Manager John Middleton has announced his decision to retire and an assistant manager has been hired to replace him at that time.

Henderson said Monday that he agreed with the change in 2011, but no longer supports it.

“Three commissioners decided (in 2011) that we needed a county manager system and I agreed with them, I’ll just be honest, because a commissioner, he or she is only as good as the information received,” Henderson said.

While campaigning, Henderson said he has heard from constituents who want the structure changed back. He added that there is more accountability with an elected chairman at the helm.

“I think the citizens have spoke,” he said. “You put the chairman in his seat. He’s the only person who runs at large. I run in a district; he runs at large and what the people have told us is we want it the way it used to be. And I’ll tell you right now, my vote is to put it back the way it was and that was the chairman and an executive assistant.”

Challenger Sonya Hunte said she has heard from taxpayers that they are looking for fiscal responsibility, which would be a determining factor for her.

“In promoting fiscal responsibility we have to look at the three people we are employing (county manager, assistant manager and chairman) and just really looking at the division of duties and the goals,” Hunte said. “I would say we have to look at the current structure to see what would be the most fiscally responsible and accountable to the citizens and the taxpayers of Newton County.”

Jacquelyn Smith said she supports the county manager form of government, but thinks that change can be good if handled in the right manner.

Smith said improvements could be achieved through “education, training and informing the county manager.”

District 2 Commissioner Lanier Sims, who is seeking re-election, was the sole candidate for that post to participate in the forum. He faces fellow Democrat Earnest Simmons in the primary; Republican Rickie Corley will face the winner in November.

Sims said he believes the county needs a professional manager, although there will need to be some changes to the current structure.

“The current system we have is flawed in a few places,” he said. “We still don’t have a true county manager form of government, and that’s something we are working on.”

Candidates were also asked about an “undercurrent of East versus West” in Newton County and what they would do to unify the county.

“It needs to start with us and all five commissioners need to have that same vision,” said Sims.

He pointed out that District 2 has the highest household income of any district in the county and the most educated people per household. The eastern side of the county has its own set of attributes, he said, and residents need to be made aware of what each area has to offer.

“You’ve got to buy in at the commissioner level and you’ve got to try to get some marketing out there, get some education out there to bridge that gap,” he said.

Henderson said he has worked over the past 18 years to serve all of Newton County, pointing to his work to develop Denny Dobbs Park.

Hunte said it will come down to “citizen engagement.”

“Unification can only occur with citizen engagement and citizen information,” she said. “We have to educate the citizens about what’s going on in terms of development, the reasons for development, how this could benefit them now and in the future.”

Hunte said she would make that citizen information relevant to citizens, “really breaking it down for people … in bite sizes so they can determine a realistic impact for themselves. I would continue to promote the collective quality of life we are trying to attain here in Newton County by citizen engagement and unifying the East and the West.”

Smith said it would be important to reinforce the idea that all are residents of one county.

“We need to recognize that we are one county, and that is the great county of Newton County,” she said. “And then we will unify each other by working together as citizens of all districts and realize that we have differences, what are our differences are, and how we can make those differences come to likeness.”