County manager revival plan draws ire

JONESBORO — Emotions ran high Tuesday as residents and the mayors of four Clayton County cities blasted county commissioners for considering a revival of the county manager position.

The county manager position was abolished in January when the commission moved to change the county’s system of government from a strong manager form to a strong chairman form of government. Recreating the position would swing the pendulum back in the other direction.

That had some people angry during the commission’s public comment period as they accused commissioners of putting personal agendas ahead of moving the county forward.

“This item on the agenda isn’t the people’s business, it’s a personal item,” said Rex resident Jeffrey Benoit as he screamed at commissioners.

The commission conducted a first reading on the ordinance that would create the county manager position Tuesday. It must undergo two public readings at consecutive meetings before commissioners can vote it into law. That means the ordinance’s author, Vice-Chairman Michael Edmondson, could withdraw it from consideration before the Nov. 5 commission meeting.

Opponents of the proposal found support this week from Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day, Lake City Mayor Willie Oswalt, Lovejoy Mayor Bobby Cartwright and Morrow Mayor Joseph “J.B.” Burke. The mayors stood up and criticized the proposal and expressed support for commission Chairman Jeff Turner.

If the county manager position is recreated, it would strip Turner of much of his power as chairman. He would essentially be reduced to being a figurehead while the county manager would have the power to run the day-to-day operations of the county government.

Turner defeated former Chairman Eldrin Bell last year by winning every voting precinct in the county.

“Don’t forget over 177,000 people voted for the new chairman,” said Oswalt. “That ought to say something, so let him be the chairman.”

It would also be the third time in the last five years that Clayton County has seen a change in its form of government. In late 2008, the commission created the county administrator position, which was similar to the county manager in that Bell saw much of his power evaporate when it was created.

That shift crystallized in 2011, when the county manager job was created. It was undone with the changes made earlier this year.

Cartwright said shifting the form of government would disrupt progress that has been made in the county since Turner became chairman in January, including a closer relationship between the county government and its cities.

“If you want his job, then run for it,” Cartwright told commissioners to the boisterous applause of residents.

One long-time resident, Jim Carter, said he didn’t see a need for the county manager position. He said he has lived in the county for 44 years and has said Turner was the most responsive member of the commission he has ever seen.

Carter then referenced the old saying of “too many chiefs and not enough Indians” when describing county government, and he said more managers were not needed.

“You already have enough chiefs,” he said.

For his part, Turner is a bit perplexed by the proposal. He said there are several issues that are not addressed by the ordinance, such as the chain of command. The chief operating officer position, which was created in January, handles many of the day-to-day management functions that the county manager would presumably have.

The difference is that Turner retains his power with a chief operating officer in place, and the proposed ordinance does not address what would happen to that position if the county manager position is recreated. It also doesn’t specify where the county manager would fall in the county’s organizational chart.

“I was disappointed to see that was proposed,” said Turner. “I don’t believe there is a need for it. We have a chief operating officer, and this board voted in that form of government when we [Turner and Commissioner Shana Rooks] came into officer earlier this year.

“Miss Anderson, who’s currently our chief operating officer, is doing an exceptional job and we are moving this county in the right direction,” he continued.

But, for some residents, the proposal is an attack on the decision they made last year to make Turner the head of county government. Benoit, in particular, warned commissioners that residents would not be ignored on the county manager issue.

“You know the word of God says, ‘If your enemy slaps you in the face, turn the other cheek,” said Benoit. “We’ve been slapped enough and we’re not going to be slapped anymore — not by this board or by anybody else. For all of these preconceived agendas that you have in your back pockets — keep it.”

Benoit also warned commissioners that there could be consequences at the voting booth if they voted to resurrect the county manager position. Edmondson and Commissioner Sonna Singleton are up for re-election next year.

“These are the constituents that voted for you and these are the constituents that will vote again,” said Benoit.