Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
The debate about whether Clayton County needs an un-elected county administrator to run its affairs has begun anew, with a proposed ordinance that would set the wheels in motion to create a county manager position.
Clayton County Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Wole Ralph said he has asked the county's legal department to draft an ordinance that would create the county manager position, while also eliminating the county's controversial, and vacant, chief-of-staff position.
Ralph said he is seeking to create the position, which will only have administrative powers, because he was unhappy with the way the county's budget-approval process proceeded this year under Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell's leadership. The budget was approved last week, with a 5-mill millage rate increase, instead of 14 furlough days that had been proposed for county employees, according to Bell.
"This budget process has convinced me that the time has come," Ralph said. "When we received the budget, it was $5 million out of balance. We received the budget with two weeks going forward [until a state-mandated deadline for approving a budget]. The chairman indicated that he was not ready to make a proposal, even after preparing the budget for us.
"The day before the budget was adopted, this board came very close to having a 'No' vote on the budget, and so, the need for a professional administrator is clear, in order to govern some of these issues."
Commissioners had been scheduled to conduct a first reading on the proposed ordinance at a meeting on Tuesday. But, the commission's secretary, Shelby Haywood, announced early in the meeting that it was being postponed because it had not been properly, publicly advertised. County officials said at the meeting that the ordinance may now come up for a first reading as early as the commission's July 19 meeting.
A second reading of the proposed ordinance will have to take place at a later date, before commissioners can vote on it, Ralph said.
This is the commission's second try, this year, at creating a county manager position. In March, the commission voted 4-1 in favor of a resolution asking the county's delegation in the Georgia General Assembly to seek a change in state code, to give county managers executive, as well as administrative, powers.
Bell voted against the resolution. The requested legislation never came to pass.
The agenda for the meeting showed the ordinance would have allowed the creation of a county manager, under "Home Rule Powers" provided in Official Code of Georgia Annotated section 36-5-22, which pertains to the authorization by county commissions, for county manager positions.
The code section states: "The governing authority of any county of this state, or the General Assembly may create in, and for, those counties in which it deems necessary, or advisable, the office of county manager, and [it] may vest in such office powers, duties, and responsibilities of an administrative nature."
Bell rejected Ralph's criticism's of how he handled the budget process this year. He pointed out that Ralph sits on a county Finance Committee, and should have been aware of the county's budget situation before mid-June.
"I won't dignify that comment [Ralph's budget argument] with a response," Bell said. "He's had the budget in his hand all year, why didn't [he] do better."
Bell also pointed out that he gave commissioners three options last month for balancing the budget, including furloughing employees, a smaller millage-rate increase, and selling some of the county's real estate.
It has long been rumored that members of Clayton's commission have wanted a county manager position, to take power away from Bell. The chairman re-iterated that point when asked about the ordinance on Tuesday.
"The people of Clayton County elected me as chair[man], and the Georgia General Assembly gave me a method by which I am to serve," Bell said. "And, this board has been making the effort for the last four years to question the authority of the public, and the General Assembly, in taking away the powers of the chairman. All I have to say is let the people, not the commission, be the voice of the county."
Another specter in the county manager debate is that when the commission passed its county manager request resolution in March, a few commission observers said they saw it as a way to give greater power to county Fleet Maintenance Director Wade Starr. Starr is a controversial figure, who many people claim is a behind-the-scenes player in county operations.
"I think a lot of consideration needs to take place," before a candidate for the position is named, however, Ralph said.
The commission previously ventured down the path of having an appointed official run county government, rather than the elected commission chairman in 2008. At that time, the commission appointed former Clayton County Fire Chief Alex Cohilas as the county's chief of staff.
Bell sued his fellow commissioners over that appointment, and Cohilas ended up having to be re-appointed to the chief-of-staff position, after a Clayton County Superior Court judge ruled it was not properly done the first time. Cohilas retired from all his county jobs in December, and the chief-of-staff position has been vacant. Bell has been handling that position's duties since Cohilas' retirement.