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Public hearing draws debate on county manager ordinance

Matthew Strother News editor

January 8, 2014

Troup County Commissioners narrowly approved 3-1 on Friday an amendment to its ordinance defining the duties and roles of the county manager after heated debate from some attendees and a fellow commissioner.


Before the public hearing, County Attorney Jerry Willis gave background on the county manager ordinance and the changes proposed.


“There are a number of things that we changed, but there were not a number of things that we changed that had any substance to it at all,” Willis said. “And we really made changes based upon clarification, and of course, any changes that we make … we have to have the authority of the state in order to make changes.”


The amendment to the ordinance is actually part of local legislation that will need to be sent to the secretary of state following the commissioners’ approval.


One of the main points of contention was the new review process outlined in the ordinance. It outlines that the commission chairman will conduct performance evaluations of the county manager, which he will report to the board. The ordinance states that unless otherwise determined by the board, the chairman may make adjustments to the manager’s compensation.


Willis said the provision is no different “than we do every employee in this county. Everybody has performance reviews.” He said the chairman reports the review to the full board of Commissioners and any adjustments or compensations are decided by the board.


“I think a lot of people have lost sight of what it means to operate a county manager form of government,” Willis said. “He runs a governmental body, as opposed to a private business body, but he is in fact the CEO of Troup County government.”


Willis said the county manager is “solely in charge of all personnel - hiring and firing.” The Commission has had no role in operation of personnel matters, he noted, so commissioners can’t be persuaded to hire or fire certain people for personal reasons. The county’s personnel policy was crafted with this in mind.


However, the commission always has oversight over the county manager, Willis said.


“If the county manager doesn’t do the job with regard to personnel, hirings and firings, and spending money - if he doesn’t do it, then he is accountable to this board,” Willis said. “And that’s the way it should be, and that’s the way the system of the county manager form of government works.”


Commissioner Tripp Foster said he felt the ordinance would take away the commissioners’ review power on some items. Willis said the county manager is in charge of day-to-day operations, but is appointed by the County Commission and is replaceable by the commission.


Foster was concerned about changes to the county manager’s spending limits. The county manager has a $25,000 cap on spending without commission approval, but the new ordinance clarifies that the cap does not apply to employment contracts. Willis gave an example that if the county manager hired a position that paid $3,000 per month, that would exceed $25,000 annually, but would not fall under the manager’s spending cap.


Foster said he only had received the previous ordinance that morning to examine the differences. LaGrange resident Tommy Callaway and county resident Ellen Gilmore, speaking at the public hearing, also said they felt the county should have provided both the existing and proposed to the public so residents could compare the changes.


Callaway, like others, felt the new review process took away power from the commissioners.


“It seems like we’re putting the cart in front of the horse,” Callaway said. “We’ve added in that the commission chairman can periodically, or will periodically evaluate the performance of the county manager, then he will come to the board of the commissioners with his review. Then it is up to the commission board to go along with it. Now, it seems to me like, that prior to review of the county manager, the chairman needs to discuss with the board and make sure they don’t have any problem with his performance as well.”


He also felt the term “periodic review” was too vague, and more concrete language should be used.


Willis and some commissioners defended the new ordinance’s process. Commissioner Morris Jones said that the county manager is continuously evaluated for his work and regular evaluations by the full board held about every six months. Commissioner Richard English said when the county chairman reviews the manager, all the commissioners include their comments in the review.


“It is a responsibility of every commissioner up here to give their input on the evaluation of the county manager,” Jones said.


Callaway agreed, but said the wording of the new ordinance seems to take that power from commissioners and hands it to the chairman. He said the new process seems to put the burden on commissioners to disagree with the chairman’s assessment if they want input. He asked the commissioners to make sure they understood what the ordinance says.


Ron McClellan of West Point was more condemning in his claims that the ordinance would give the chairman power over the board in the county manager’s pay.


“If I’m not mistaken, it gives Chairman (Ricky) Wolfe and Chairman Wolfe alone unilateral ability to give him a bonus or a raise or some other compensation,” McClellan said.


“Your interpretation of that is 100 percent wrong,” responded County Attorney Jerry Willis.


“Well, then explain it to me,” McClellan said. “Make it clear, please.”


“Well, I will just refer back to you: (reading the amendment) ‘the chairman of the board of commissioners shall conduct periodic performance evaluations of the county manager, report upon the same to the board, and, unless otherwise determined by the board, may make adjustments to the county manager’s compensation.’ Now the way I understand ‘otherwise determined by the board,’ by my understanding of the English language, is that the board has the final say on that.”


Callaway also said he was concerned about the county manager’s ability to determine severance pay for employees, and felt there should be a better process to set severance to assure they are equitable. Gilmore asked if there was a cap in place on what the manager can provide in severance. Gilmore said she felt the ordinance didn’t have enough checks and balances in place.


Willis said the county manager is always held to the budget approved by the commission, and if he makes any questionable expenditures or fails to adhere to the budget, the commission always may exercise its right to fire him. He said that provides the checks and balances necessary.


McClellan asked why the amendment was brought up in the first place. In a letter to the Daily News, McClellan alleges that the move was engineered by County Manager Tod Tentler and Wolfe as a “power grab.” Willis said he was unsure who originally proposed the update, but believed it was a member of the county attorney’s office, which periodically updates ordinances that may be out of date.


“We’ve had a lively discussion. We appreciate everybody’s input,” Wolfe said before asking commissioners for a motion on the amendment.


Foster made a motion that the ordinance amendment be tabled for further review, which died for a lack of second. Davis made a motion to accept the amendment, which was seconded by Jones. Davis, Jones and English voted for the motion, and Foster voted against.