The County Line - January/February 2000
Philosophy Means Change in County Administration
few months ago we were asked to prepare an article on county
administration in Alabama. The article was to be printed
in the newsletter of the National Association of County
many of the facts and observations may be "old hat" to many
in Alabama, the issues discussed are worth a close look.
The article is reprinted below:
role of the county administrator in Alabama is as varied
as the size, population and powers of Alabama's county commissions.
has 67 counties, ranging in size from Jefferson County with
more than 650,000 residents to rural Bullock County with
barely 11,000 residents. The structure of the governing
bodies, the number of commissioners, the selection of the
commission chairman and the role of the county administrator
is dictated primarily by local laws and local politics,
rather than by state statute.
more than half of the county commissions employ a person
who holds the title of "County Administrator," there is
no state law that prescribes the duties or role of the administrator.
Nor has there been any movement on the part of the state
Legislature or those in county government to establish such
a position by state law.
the absence of state guidelines, the elected commissioners
sculpt the role of the county's chief administrative officer,
regardless of the title that is attached to the position.
role of the chief administrative person in each county is
influenced in large measure by the structure of the county
commission and how the county commission chairpersons are
selected. The state law outlining the membership and selection
process for Alabama's county commissions has been altered
greatly by both the federal courts and the passage of local
state law provides for each county commission to be composed
of four commissioners and the Judge of Probate as chairman,
the structure has been changed in most counties. In fact,
only 16 Alabama counties -- or 24 percent -- still have
the judge of probate serving as the commission chairman.
18 other counties, federal court orders have altered the
leadership selection process for county governments by requiring
that the post of commission chairperson rotate between the
district commissioners. This change has dramatically impacted
the role of the county administrator in those counties.
commissioners elect a member of their body to preside over
the meetings and hold the position of chairperson in 19
counties. And in the remaining 14 counties, local laws have
been passed establishing the full-time position of County
Commission Chairman that is elected by voters county-wide.
of these varying methods of selecting the commission chair
impact the role of the county administrator.
example, in the state's largest county there is no person
who holds the title of County Administrator. Instead, the
functions of county government are divided into five departments
-- finance, roads, human services, etc. -- with each commissioner
serving as the chief executive officer of one of the departments.
of the commissioners has a chief employee who supervises
the day-to-day operation of that particular department.
However, there is no provision for one administrative employee
to provide coordination or leadership for the five separate
the counties where the federal courts have established a
rotating chair process, the county's ability to have long-term
leadership from its elected commissioners has been hampered.
The result is an increasingly significant role for the county
administrative personnel in general and for the chief administrative
person, in particular.
the rotation of the chairman duties is a recent development
-- beginning in the early 1980s -- the jury is still out
on whether it will have a long-range impact on the growth
and professionalism of county administration in Alabama.
But there is no question that administrative personnel in
those counties are faced with decisions that are reserved
by elected commissioners in other counties.
the daily hands-on leadership that is provided by a full-time
chairman, the counties operating under the rotating system
have been forced to leave the administrative details to
the county administrator. The growth of the individual role
of each administrator has been largely a function of the
public's support of this shift and the commission's willingness
to utilize the skills of the person holding the position.
30 counties that have a full-time chair presence -- the
16 counties with probate judge chairs and the 14 counties
with county-wide chairs -- traditionally vest less responsibility
in the hands of the chief administrative employee. Perhaps
this is because the voters expect the elected official to
be involved more directly in the day-to-day work of the
one can see, the position of county administrator in Alabama
is much like beauty, it is determined by the perspective
of the beholder. In only one county is the position established
by state law.
1949 the members of the Alabama Legislature who represented
Montgomery County passed a local law creating the position
of Clerk of the Montgomery County Commission. The act prescribes
a detailed list of duties including financial administration,
supervision and control of all county property, the employment
and discharge of all employees in the county commission
office, supervision of all purchasing and other more clerical
duties. The act, however, does not provide other more modern
duties for the county clerk, such as long-range planning
or management activities.
chief administrative personnel in Alabama have a professional
organization -- Alabama Association of County Commission
Clerks and Administrators -- which is an affiliate organization
of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama. The
group provides educational opportunities for county personnel,
including a certified county administrator program that
is administered by the University of North Alabama.
members of the organization are active in other activities,
such as appearing before legislative committees, state agencies
and other groups on behalf of county government in Alabama.
county governments enjoy a very productive relationship
with the Legislature, highlighted by a number of major changes
in state law in recent years. In 1998 the Alabama Legislature
enacted a constitutional amendment which prohibits the passage
of unfunded mandates without a two-thirds majority vote
in BOTH the House and Senate. Alabama voters overwhelmingly
approved the amendment in November of 1998.
change in philosophy is one indicator that county government
is indeed changing in Alabama and, with those changes, will
come a change in county administration.