Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Oconee BOC to Resume Conversation on May 19

What To Do With a CEO?

Oconee County’s four commissioners, who will resume their conversation about county administrative procedures next week, have been much clearer about what they do not want Board Chairman Melvin Davis to do in the future than about what they do want him to do.

The four said at the May 6 work session that they do not want Davis to be the sole day-to-day manager of county activities. They want a county manager–or someone with a title similar to that–to run the county under their and Davis’ supervision.

What Davis is supposed to do under a new organizational chart proposed at that May 6 meeting is something the four commissioners and Davis are set to negotiate at another work session starting at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday at the Community Center in Veterans Park on Hog Mountain road.

At the end of the May 6 session, the five agreed tentatively to an organizational chart for county government that removes Davis from his position as chief executive officer of the county sitting between the board and the departmental administrators and places him off to the side with unspecified responsibilities.

The problem is–or at least could be–that the chairman of the board of commissioners is designated in the county’s enabling legislation as both chief executive officer of the county and chairman of the commission. In other words, he is both head of the executive and head of the legislative branches of the county government.

Davis made it clear at the May 6 work session that he feels he ran for reelection five years ago and again last year promising to be a strong chief executive, and he isn’t going to be in favor of the new organizational chart until he knows what is left for him to do in any new configuration.

Davis’ comment about his election raises implicitly a question about what citizens thinks about the current way county government operates and about how it should operate in the future.
No one knows what citizens think, because no one has asked.

At the May 6 meeting, Gordon Maner of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia made it clear that citizen input was not only not being sought at that time, but was not even wanted.

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Commissioner Chuck Horton said at one point at the May 6 meeting that he thought the public ought to be given a chance to speak, but neither he nor anyone else has offered any concrete plans for soliciting citizen input.

What the commissioners have said is that they want to have in place by July 1 a new set of operating procedures for county government, and they expect to implement those procedures via formal votes of the commissioners.

Commissioners Margaret Hale, Jim Luke and Chuck Horton have made it clear that they feel past efforts to solve informally what they see as a problem with county government have not worked.

In their view, Chairman Davis does not provide them with the information they need and does not allow the department heads he controls to do so either.

The meeting on May 6 started with a discussion of creating a county manager–either with that title or another–to do what Davis currently does.

Harry Hayes, also of the Carl Vinson Institute, reviewed for the board his study of Oconee County’s government and of nine other counties selected for comparison.

Each of the nine selected counties has a full-time chairman and an administrative officer, as does Oconee County. The counties vary, however, in how much power they give to the chairman.

In fact, the 159 counties in Georgia have a variety of different forms of government. Hayes reported that 73 percent of them (116) have either an administrator or a manager, but how much power that administrator or manager has varies.

Commissioner Chuck Horton, who has served on the Oconee County Board of Education, said at the May 6 meeting he felt the county could benefit from having a strong manager, somewhat like a school superintendent, with the four commissioners and chairman providing policy guidance to that manager, whom they could hire and fire.

At present, Alan Theriault, who holds the title of administrative officer, is a type of county manager, but, according to the organizational chart Davis provided Hayes for his study, Theriault reports only to Davis.

How far the county can move in the direction of creating a strong manager under the control the whole board without changing the enabling legislation is an open question, but Horton was clear in saying at the May 6 meeting he is willing to change the legislation if necessary.

The enabling legislation for the county can be changed, however, only by the Georgia General Assembly. Local Rep. Bob Smith and Sen. Bill Cowsert are under no obligation to introduce such legislation, and it will not pass the Assembly without their support.

In the past, local members of the Assembly have been willing to introduce legislation only if there is agreement among all the affected parties. In this case, that would seem to include Davis.

Senators and representatives in Georgia serve two-year terms, which means they can be kept on a short leash by the voters. If citizens had a strong feeling about what changes they wanted in the local enabling legislation, Cowsert and Smith probably would listen.

Since no one has asked, however, no one knows what changes the citizens might want in that legislation. The legislation could be changed to increase or decrease the number of commissioners, to create districts for the commissioners and to establish an elected executive who would not be part of the commission.

At present, the only thing that differentiates Davis from the other four commissioners is that Davis chose to run for commission chairman. All five commissioners run at large, meaning they have the same constituency.

In the November general election, when all five ran without Democratic opposition, the four commissioners each got more votes than did Davis, who faced a write-in candidate.

Rather than try to decrease the power of Davis, the four commissioners could try to increase their own power. At present, County Attorney Daniel Haygood and Clerk Gina Lindsey report to the full commission, and the board could turn to these two as sources of information.

Haygood said at the May 6 meeting that the Board already calls on him more now than in the past.

At that meeting, however, the board made it clear it wanted County Administrative Officer Theriault and County Finance Director Jeff Benko to report to the full board, rather than just to Davis, as is now the case.

Davis’ response has been that this will be inherently less "efficient and effective," and CVIOG’s Harry Hayes said the county could lose efficiency and effectiveness as a result of the proposed changes.

Do citizens want an efficient and effective government, or a more open, though perhaps less efficient and effective, one? Would citizens like the commissioners to have the resources to serve as a check on the power of the chairman?

Tools and techniques for learning the answers to these questions exist, but someone has to want to use them.

The focus at Tuesday’s meeting is supposed to be on what to do with Davis in his role as chief executive officer of the county. Unlike in business, as County Attorney Haygood reminded the four, they cannot just fire him.

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Note: The video from the May 6 meeting is available at my vimeo site.

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