The midterm vacancy for Gwinnett County commission chairman points to the problem: Who wants to run for the position, with the aggravation it brings and the low salary?
Here's why it's a problem: The full-time post virtually asks for a retiree, or someone independently wealthy, to seek the position. The $60,000 salary for the full-time work effectively eliminates qualified younger candidates with families to raise.
The salary question for both the chairman and the part-time district commissioners has been a bone of contention for years. At present, the district commissioners are paid $30,000 annually. That's more in line with the positions they hold. But the $60,000 pay for the chairman has caused problems and will continue to be an impediment to getting young, well-qualified people to seek the position. The commission has the power, by legislative action, to raise its salaries, but so far has not done so.
Here's a proposal for a possible solution. Because of Georgia law, any change in the structure of the commission must be approved by the Gwinnett legislative delegation, and passed by the Legislature, then signed into law by the governor. How about the following:
* Gwinnett's commission asks the Legislature to eliminate the post of full-time commission chairman.
* Gwinnett seeks to move from four district commissioners to five part-time district commissioners, carving up the county into five near-equal districts.
* The five district commissioners, upon organizing once elected, would pick one of their number to chair the meetings. Then they would search for and select a full-time CEO, or county manager, to run the day-to-day operations. This is similar to the present county-manager form of government, except it would eliminate having two full-time people in the office at the same time, the chairman elected by the voters, and the manager selected by the board, as is the case now in the structure. Compensation for this CEO would be determined by the commission, and not legislated by the General Assembly.
Note that the CEO would serve at the pleasure of the duly-elected political board, and not be subject to the County Merit System. While this would make it somewhat political, having been elected by political figures, it would not entirely be removed from politics.
There's precedence in Gwinnett for such a system: our well-run Board of Education has five part-time district members, who select the school superintendent.
What would this change in Gwinnett County's commission structure do?
It would mean that all five county commissioners would be on equal footing, and since all would be part-time positions, the office would be attractive to additional would-be candidates.
It would also mean that the chief figure guiding the day-to-day operations of the county would not be a political figure, but a professional on a career path -- while neighboring DeKalb County has a CEO, it is an elected position. This would bring far more professionalism to the office and indicate that long-range guidance and planning would be a hallmark of the county.
One thing for sure: It has been since 1968 that the Gwinnett County commission was re-organized, back when the county had less than 80,000 people. Gwinnett is now 10 times that size, and need a better functioning and modern method to ensure that the county has the structure to be run well.
Moving from four to five part-time commissioners is a small step. Moving to a CEO is distinctive. The difference is that there would not be a full-time county commission chairman vying with the county manager for precedence. We need to remove that impediment from the present government, and move on to a better commission structure.
Elliott Brack is editor and publisher of Gwinnett Forum. Visit its website at www.gwinnettforum.com.