Originally created 01/12/00

Delegation considering county chief



A plan to add an at-large elected chairman position to the Columbia County Commission is gaining speed in Atlanta, but local politicians say they are being kept out of the loop on the idea.

"The question at hand is: Is this is a better way?" asked Commissioner Frank Spears. "I don't know, but I sure would like to be left in the loop."

The county's legislative delegation -- state Reps. Ben Harbin and Bill Jackson and state Sen. Joey Brush -- has been working on a bill creating the chairman position, which also is being referred to as a mayor/chief executive officer position.

The mayor/chief executive officer would:

Be elected countywide.

Hold veto power over the five-member commission.

Run daily operations of county government.

Not have a vote on commission items.

"I personally think the citizens of the county need to elect the person that spends their money," Mr. Jackson said. "In an administrative type of government, you don't have that. You have an administrator that they don't vote for and they don't hardly get to see."

There also has been discussion about adding two "super district" commission seats, but that could be delayed until after the 2000 census. Then officials could couple the two seats with projected redistricting.

The countywide mayor idea is in the preliminary discussion stage with no definite plans -- or answers, said Mr. Jackson. However, delegation members say they hope to put the issue on the November ballot for county voters.

"We are just toying with that idea and that bill, but there is nothing cooked up about it as we speak," he said. "It's just an idea we've got in our minds."

It's an idea state lawmakers largely have kept to themselves. Delegation members spent an afternoon meeting with county representatives a month ago, but there was no mention of the plan.

"My concern about all of this is that no one has talked to me," Commissioner Diane Ford said. "Where did it come from and why is the legislative delegation all of a sudden looking at changing the administration without even sitting down and having a conversation with us?"

State legislators said they were waiting to get a consensus among themselves.

"What we are trying to do is get our side unified and then go to them with proposals and get their input," Mr. Harbin said. "But the ultimate decision will be with the people because this government belongs to them."

Although there has been little dialogue between the delegation and the commission, commissioners said they'd be willing to look at changes.

"I think we always need to be looking at our form of government, making sure it suits us best," said Commissioner Barry Fleming, who called each delegation member last week after hearing of the plan through the political grapevine.

Commission Chairman Pat Farr agreed.

"There's nothing wrong with looking at the issue and talking about the issue," he said. "What I don't understand, I guess, are all these rumors floating around and no one is calling us."

At the center of the changes would be County Administrator Steve Szablewski, who said he has adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

"That's about all I can do," he said.

The county could follow the model of Richmond County, which has an appointed administrator and an elected mayor. But that would mean two salaries for taxpayers to cover.

"If the voters say they want it, we'll have to fund it," Mrs. Ford said.

The new position could carry a $70,000 to $100,000 price tag, Mr. Brush said.

"I think it would have to be at least $70,000 to get qualified candidates, but we haven't really discussed that," he said.

Or the county could eliminate the administrator's job. But an informal poll of commissioners Tuesday showed all five were happy with Mr. Szablewski's performance.

"For us, it is not trying to correct a situation with Steve," Commissioner Jim Whitehead said. "If we felt that way, we'd just correct it straight out."

Mr. Whitehead, who was commission chairman for two years, said the chairman's workload has increased, but that's not reason enough for a full-time chairman.

"I know in a lot of cases we can't spend the time maybe that needs to be spent. But that's where we rely on an administrator," he said. "So far, I have not seen a lot of things that haven't worked pretty well."

Reach Jason B. Smith at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 115.