Heated emotions, rhetoric squashed real debate

Matthew Strother News editor

January 12, 2014

Sometimes, as a journalist, it’s not easy to find the objective truth that often lies behind two extreme interpretations.

A perfect example comes from the Tuesday public hearing over the revised county manager ordinance. A main point of contention was over the new ordinance’s review policy for the manager. The new ordinance reads:

“The compensation of the county manager shall be initially fixed by the board of commissioners. Thereafter, 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.”

The four people who spoke up at the hearing, all opposing the ordinance, felt the wording was, at best, too vague and could be interpreted as giving the commission chairman more sway in the review process than the commissioners. At worst, it was interpreted as a blatant attempt to take away the commissioners’ ability to conduct a review of the manager, placing it solely in the hands of the chairman.

Ron McClellan of West Point was firmly in the latter category. He told commissioners that the ordinance gives the chairman “unilateral ability to give (the manager) a bonus or a raise or some other compensation.”

County Attorney Jerry Willis told McClellan he was “100 percent wrong” in that interpretation.

“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,” Willis responded after reading out loud the provision.

Commissioners Morris Jones, Buck Davis and Richard English said reviews have been regularly held with the county manager, with all commissioners giving input, and implied that would continue. LaGrange resident Tommy Callaway told commissioners that the wording of the ordinance completely removes their ability to review; the commissioners disagreed.

Same words – two very different interpretations.

Although I don’t believe the provision takes away commissioner’s ability to give input on the review process, I certainly understand the concern of those who opposed it. The interpretation of that key part, “unless otherwise determined by the board,” can be the difference between allowing commissioners full input and discussion in the review process or simply an agree or disagree stance, and doesn’t seem to guarantee commissioners an active part in the review process.

However, that the commissioners have the ability to “otherwise determine” any changes in compensation does guarantee that they have power to veto the chairman on any recommendation he makes. One opponent asked how the commission would make that determination, with Willis assuming it would be a vote. However, nothing in the language expressly says that.

However, for the chairman to suddenly cut out the commissioners from the review process would be a coup on his part. Commissioners wouldn’t be powerless to stop him. If a majority wanted to vote to change the ordinance, they could do so without his consent.

But what people want is something explicit, definite and concrete – a guarantee. Even though the current commission has a set process for review that will likely stay intact, there is no guarantee in the wording of the ordinance. The commissioners may not see that as an issue because they plan to continue the review process as usual, but people on the outside don’t have that consolation.

Being “outside the circle,” people have no guarantee of the motives of those in control. Even if the ones currently in power are trustworthy, it doesn’t put everyone’s mind at ease in the worst case scenario of say, electing a Toronto Mayor Rob Ford-type to the commission in the future. Also, stories like the recent news about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie don’t exactly inspire confidence for all elected officials.

Unfortunately, any hope of discussing the problem Tuesday with any sort of real consideration was squashed by heated rhetoric, bad blood and defensiveness on both sides. I don’t think the new ordinance represents a power grab by the commission chairman and county manager, but I do think any possibility of helping alleviate that view was quashed Tuesday.