Cleburne County Commission to consider placing finance officer under its own authority
by Laura Camper
Apr 12, 2013 | 2697 views |  0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Cleburne County Commission is expected to take up a resolution Monday that would give the commissioners more influence in the day-to-day operations of the county.

But that might not make the operations more efficient, say state experts.

Commissioner Laura Cobb has introduced a measure that would apply to the county finance officer. That person is currently hired and supervised by County Administrator Steve Swafford, but Cobb would place the finance officer under the commission’s authority instead. Cobb said that would mean the finance officer would be hired by the commissioners and would answer to them. The finance officer would have her own department and the clerks in that department would also be available to do work as the commission, and even individual commissioners, requested, Cobb said.

Cobb proposed the change during the commission’s work session in March, but backed down after a heated exchange with Ryan Robertson, the commission chairman.

She made the proposal after she asking a department employee to accompany her to a meeting to take notes, she said. Cobb was upset that the employee went to her supervisor, who then went to Swafford about the request. Cobb had said that the employees work for the commission, and she and the other members shouldn’t have to go through Swafford to get information or help from them.

On Friday, Cobb said that after hearing from an auditor and two certified public accountants that the change should cause no problems, she introduced the measure again for Monday’s meeting.

“I felt strong about it,” said Cobb, who is in her first year on the commission.

The measure will allow her to go directly to the finance director and talk with her at any time to get the information she wants, Cobb said. Cobb doesn’t intend to keep the department employees from their work, she said. But the system in place doesn’t work for her, she added.

“I feel like I would be more informed if I talked to the department,” Cobb said.

Swafford said he has always provided the information Cobb has requested and Cobb doesn’t dispute that. She just said she would feel more comfortable with the changes.

However, Robertson believes Cobb may be overstepping her authority. He noted that both Cobb and Commissioner Emmett Owen have gone to Doug Ghee, the county attorney, and tasked him with work without going through the commission to get approval. Ghee attended the March meeting and agreed to waive his fees for the work. The commissioners didn’t understand there was a process to go through, Ghee said.

Robertson believes this is an example of commissioners trying to work alone without consulting the full commission.

“We have some county commissioners who want to come in and bypass the county administrator and me,” Robertson said. “It just seems like there’s some distrust or something.”

He said state law lays out the responsibility for accounting, auditing claims, issuing warrants and supplying the County Commission with information necessary for the administration of the financial affairs of the county. In the case of a county with no county administrator, those duties fall to him, the commission chair, Robertson said.

Swafford agreed.

“The County Commission is a legislative body,” Swafford said. “The power it has comes through actions it takes as a body.”

When individual commissioners start tasking employees with work, it can keep the operations from running smoothly, he said. It’s also beyond their authority as commissioners, he added.

Robertson spoke to Ghee about the proposal, since the commissioners could be voting on it Monday.

“I’m still researching,” Ghee said on Friday. He pointed out that the commission does set policy for the county’s administration.

Mary Pons, general counsel for the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said state law is intended to be broad to allow each county to decide how to organize. Pons doesn’t believe the changes would be out of the scope of the commission’s authority.

“The law allows flexibility to deal with all the different make-ups you have,” Pons said. “I don’t look at the code sections as being restrictive.”

She noted some county commissions are deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of their counties. Some aren’t. Pons also noted that some counties have good systems in place and some don’t.

Swafford said the changes would make it more difficult for him to do his job. He is responsible for the county’s finances. That’s why the finance director is under his supervision, Swafford said.

Lori Owens, associate professor and department chair for political science and public administration at Jacksonville State University, said there’s a reason counties have county administrators. In fact, Owens said, many county commissions had hired administrators before the state Legislature passed the law giving them the authority to do so.

“A good county administrator will keep you out of trouble,” Owens said. “The purpose of the county administrator is to provide consistency and long-term planning.”

Commissioners come and go with each election, she said. In many counties, they have other jobs and are not full-time officials, Owens said. They have to rely on the expertise and experience of the people they employ, she said.

Taking authority from the administrator and putting it in the hands of the commissioners “sets a bad precedent,” Owens said.

If a county has a bad administrator, the commissioners have to deal with that issue as a commission, she said.

Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.

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