After attending a new-supervisor’s orientation in December and another in January, first-time newly-elected county lawmaker Ben Gaston was left with more questions than answers.
In need of clarity with regards to some questions and statements raised during those sessions, he requested that the department head of the Mississippi State University Extension Service center that supports local governments, Sumner Davis, come to Monday's Sunflower County Supervisors’ session.
Describing how the training meetings played out, Gaston said, "Nobody was on the same page even though they read out of the same book.”
Referring to a manual that he was holding, Gaston said, "If you can kind of go over it and tell us what we ought to be doing according to this."
District 5 Supervisor Gloria Dickerson also mentioned needing clarification on the unit system and the beat system of county government, how they work and the role of the road manager concerning the day-to-day operation. She said the unit system seems to be somewhat limited in certain areas.
Davis began with a comparison between the two systems. He said the unit system, which Sunflower County functions by, offers a centralized system of road maintenance, wherein the unified board basically decides how the road manager is to carry out the things that they want done with regard to the county's infrastructure.
In contrast, the beat system is divided up into separate districts and each supervisor has his or her own road crew that they would give instructions to at the start of each day. Additionally, he said those supervisors are generally very “hands-on” and in some cases they actually get out and operate the equipment themselves.
He further explained that in a beat system each supervisor will have his or her own road barn where they keep their equipment and such. However, it’s illegal to do that in a unit system, but the board can have satellite locations throughout the county to house equipment. He stressed that the equipment does not belong to any one particular supervisory district exclusively.
Davis emphasized that in a unit system it is up to either the county administrator or the road managers to carry out whatever decisions the board makes around the table. "Y'all have the authority to hire who you want in those positions as a board, but once you hire them, they work at your will and pleasure, a 3-2 vote," Davis said.
He asserted that in the beat system a county administrator can be used, but the position is not a necessity. He said the main difference between a beat system and a unit system is the centralized administration verses the fragmented delivery of service.
Gaston then referenced a statement made at the January session with regard to the role of the county administrator. Davis said that when the board hires an administrator that person, within the confines of state law, is to implement the policies, practices and orders of the board.
Another question that Gaston and President Riley Rice said was raised in the Jackson session dealt with whether or not a county administrator or a road manager had the power to terminate an employee. Davis said, “It's going to be determined on y'all's personnel policies that y'all have adopted."
He assured them that since the county administrator and road manager answer to the board that any decisions to hire and fire had to be approved by the board. He added, "Again, it comes back, for the board and on the approval of the board."
He proposed that even though the administrator needs to be in a position to employ the people he or she needs to carry out the things that the board expects, it all ultimately still has to come back for the board's approval.
Additionally, the road managers have some statutory, laid-out responsibilities as well and it's very specific toward their job description. "As far as the day-to-day road maintenance thing, that's the road managers bailiwick," Davis said.
With regard to other county departments, Davis affirmed that although the sheriff’s department employees, the circuit clerk, tax assessor/collector and chancery clerk employees work for the county, they are actually not under the board's jurisdiction. The board specifically has authority over the road managers, road crews and the Justice Court employees.
In an apparent attempt to explain the muddiness that led to the confusion, Davis said "Sometimes different code sections can be convoluted and seemed to be in conflict with each other, so you kind of have to keep in mind the larger picture and how things are supposed to work."
Attorney Johnny McWilliams referenced one particular statute that gives specific powers and authorities to the road manager, but in a subsequent section it states that the road manager has to do what the board says or he can be fired for no reason.
Gaston mentioned another statement that referenced an attorney general's ruling that an individual supervisor in a unit county has no authority over the everyday workings of the road department. And based on that, Gaston asked Davis what would be the correct way to handle a complaint from a citizen about a road condition and what they should do as a supervisor if they were to get a call.
Davis emphasized that the verbiage used in that statement was again meant to focus on the centralized system of county government and told Gaston to use whatever system the members currently had in place and that they were well within their right to check to make sure that whatever was requested was done.
He added, "It's going to be done different ways in different counties.”
Gaston said he just wanted to know so that he would not violate any attorney general's ruling or state law.
McWilliams said, "I think our county has done really well over the years." He stressed that the supervisors have the codes and statutes, but it all has to be mingled with common sense. As a concluding thought regarding the unit system, McWilliams said, “It's an effort to try to make y'all work together.”