Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
The Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1, on Tuesday, to ask the Georgia General Assembly to amend state code for all counties to have more powerful county managers.
The move would allow the commissioners to create a county-manager position, a little less than two years from now, that takes over many of the duties and authorities currently assigned to the chairman of the county commission.
Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell cast the lone vote against the resolution.
The issue opens an old wound that members of the commission have already gone to court over, but Commissioner Michael Edmondson, who proposed the idea, said he just wants the most-efficient form of county government possible. Politics, he said, did not play a role in his decision to pursue this path.
"The Association County Commissioners of Georgia provides multiple models that counties can choose from," Edmondson said. "We use the strong-chairman model ... but the most professional, most-efficient model available is a county-manager model."
By approving the resolution, the commission is asking the general assembly to make a change that would have a broad impact, not just in Clayton County, but across the entire state. The commission is asking the general assembly to make changes to the power granted to county managers through Official Code of Georgia Annotated, section 36-5-22.
The change would grant county managers executive powers, on top of the administrative powers they already have, according to Clayton County Attorney Michael Smith. That takes it beyond being a piece of local legislation, and into legislation that will need broader support, he said.
"The resolution is talking about a change to a general statute, so it's applicable, as I read it, to everyone," Smith said.
This is not the first time the commissioner has ventured down the path of having an appointed official run county government, rather than the elected commission chairman. In 2008, 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 commissioners have not taken steps, since then, to hire a new chief of staff. Bell said he opposed the county-manager resolution, because "It does not matter what form of government you have, if you do not properly quantify what are the duties and responsibilities of each, you're going to have the same thing that you've already had."
At least one commission observer said he sees this as a way for a controversial figure in county government to increase his power. "If that bill goes through, mark my word, watch who they pick -- Wade Starr," said community advocate, Chuck Ware, referring to the county's fleet maintenance director, who many people claim is a behind-the-scenes player in county operations.
Ware added that he thought the move was an attack on Bell. "Anything they can do to discredit him, they'll do it, and it's time to stop that ...," he said.
Edmondson said, however, that the provisions of the resolution state that the changes the commission is seeking would not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2013, which is the day after Bell's current term of office ends. "This is, in no way, intended as any slant against the chairman or his ability to run the county," Edmondson said. He later added, "I'm proposing we can run the county better [under a county manager]."
Edmondson also said that, while he did talk to Starr about a switch to a county-manager model, before asking for the resolution, he would prefer the commission to diligently find the best candidate for the position. "I would be interested in us doing a national search to find the best candidate possible for the position," he said.
State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale) said it would be "premature" to say how members of the Clayton County Legislative Delegation feel about the commission's request. Abdul-Salaam, the chairperson of the delegation, said no one from the county approached the delegation about the county-manager issue before the commission voted on the resolution.
"Tonight was my first time hearing about it," she said. "The delegation would, of course, meet and discuss it. I think it would have been better, if the commission had discussed it with us, and hopefully, they will."
The resolution approved by the commission this week shows a county manager in Clayton County would have 10 duties and responsibilities. Those include:
* Overseeing all of the county's departments and divisions.
* Proposing and managing the county's budget.
* Keeping commissioners advised of the county's financial condition.
* Conferring with and advising every other elected official in the county, who does not fall under the authority of the county commission.
* Supervising, and directing, the "official conduct of all appointive county officers and department heads."
* Making sure all county laws and ordinances are enforced.
* Having the right to take part in the commission's discussions, without the power to vote on any matters that come before the commission.
* Supervising the performance of all contracts for work done for the county, including overseeing the purchase of materials and supplies for the county.
* Devoting all of his, or her, time to the position, and not holding outside employment.
* Performing "such other duties as may be required of them by the governing body."