COVINGTON — Newton County Board of Commissioners agreed that the county commission chairman, who is elected countywide, needs to be at the top of the chain of command, but a full-time county manager is also necessary.
While they reached this consensus during a work session Thursday, commissioners agreed they still need to discuss who the county employees answer to at the end of the day and who ultimately has the hiring and firing power before County Manager John Middleton retires and Assistant County Manager Tom Garrett takes his place in September.
Northeast Georgia Regional Commission Executive Director Jim Dove and Association of County Commissioners of Georgia Government Relations Manager Dave Wills conducted Thursday’s work session for the commissioners to discuss what form of government structure Newton County should have.
Each commissioner gave input and a consensus was reached that a full-time chairman and manager (or administrator) was needed due to the continued growth of the county. Commissioners also agreed that the current enabling act needs to be clarified to communicate who has the authority over county employees.
Commissioner Levie Maddox said that the board should continue to have the deciding vote on who is hired or fired, but personnel discussions should be held by county manager and chairman first.
Commissioner John Douglas voiced his thoughts on the chairman and manager duties, comparing it to the military’s chain of command. He said the chairman and manager need to work together, creating a list of what needs to be done for the day and reconvene at the end of the day to see what has been accomplished.
“The chairman can go out and be the cheerleader for Newton, whether that’s attending groundbreakings or visiting with the Governor while the manager oversees the day-to-day operations,” Douglas said. “If we have respect for our voters then the person they chose needs to be head of the show.”
While there was some discussion whether or not the county chairman should be elected by the voters or chosen by the commissioners, it was agreed that the decision should be left up to the citizens.
“I put my trust in the voters. I believe they don’t just pick anyone,” Commissioner J.C. Henderson said. “The reason I felt the need to change the structure in 2011 was because I wasn’t getting the information I needed from the chairman, so I had to go to the administrative officer in order to know what was going on, so I thought it was best to move into a manager form.”
Henderson said the county should return to the previous government structure with a full-time chairman and administrative officer.
Commissioner Nancy Schulz said a full-time county manager is needed to provide consistency when there’s an election cycle.
“We need to tighten up our enabling act and clarify the county manager’s role and authority. If we could do that, then my concerns about turnover might not be a factor because there would be a strong foundation in the manager, department heads and day-to-day operations,” Schulz said.
Chairman Keith Ellis said there needs to be a balance of power. In his current position, Ellis oversees the transportation and roads department and only votes if there is a tie.
“If I have policy I wanted to implement, then I have to go to commissioners then go to the county manager to see it through. How can I be held accountable at next election at ballot box if I hadn’t had opportunity to implement those ideas?” Ellis said. “If I answer to the voters then I need to have access to department heads and delegate that to the county manager.”
Ellis also said that the average turnover of county managers is 1.9 to three years and Middleton’s tenure was an exception.
Wills said the tenure of a county manager or chairman has many variables but the most important factor is the composition of the board and the ability of the manager.
“Knowing how to communicate with every commissioner is important,” Wills said. “If there’s a clear line in who reports to who and what the manager’s responsibilities are, the better the county’s structure.”
County Attorney Tommy Craig was put in charge of rewording the enabling act so the county manager and chairman duties are clear and will present a resolution at the June 17 meeting once the budget planning is over.