The County Commissioner

The County Line - January/February 2000

Changing Philosophy Means Change in County Administration

A 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 Administrators.

Although 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:

The role of the county administrator in Alabama is as varied as the size, population and powers of Alabama's county commissions.

Alabama 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.

Although 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.

In 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.

The 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 laws.

Although 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.

In 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.

The 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.

All of these varying methods of selecting the commission chair impact the role of the county administrator.

For 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.

Each 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 departments.

In 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.

Because 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.

Without 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.

The 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 commission.

As 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.

In 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Alabama's 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.

This 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.




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