By Jim Zachary
STOCKBRIDGE — State Senator Rick Jeffares’ attempt to change Henry County’s form of government may be dead in the water this legislative session, but one local activist is not willing to let the issue die.
In fact, the move has been called an “attack on the voters and citizens of our county.”
Barbara Torbet lashed out this week, saying the voters of Henry County passed the current form of government by a countywide referendum and any attempt to change how local government operates by mere legislation would disenfranchise voters.
“It was the will of the people to have a strong Commission Chairman with full voting rights,” she said.
Jeffares published a notice of intention to introduce local legislation in the Henry Daily Herald, March 6, 2013, that proposed, “The chairperson shall vote only in the case of a tie, to provide that the chairperson shall preside over meetings of the board but shall not make or second motions before the board, to provide that the county manager shall establish the agenda for board meetings and shall have the power to hire, discipline, and terminate employees of the board to provide for related matters, and for other purposes.”
However, a countywide voter referendum approved in 1990 created the strong chairman form of government.
The bill introduced by Jeffares, without any prompting or public vote by the Henry County Commission, would effectively undo that referendum and create a strong county manager form of government, shifting powers of the elected commission chairman to the appointed manager.
The first countywide election following the referendum, passed by Henry County voters, was held in 1992 and the first popularly elected chairman with full voting rights on the commission took office in 1993.
“This is pretty much unprecedented in Henry County. I don’t ever remember a legislator putting a notice of intent for local legislation in the paper without local discussion,” Torbet said.
“This action would basically nullify the election and is a stab at the electoral process. We are not going to just sit by and take it,” Torbet added.
Jeffares, who represents District II on the Henry County Water and Sewerage Authority’s board of directors, is the current state senator for Georgia’s District 17. Jeffares is a former Henry County commissioner, and a former city manager of Locust Grove. He also previously worked as the director of Water and Wastewater Treatment for the City of Covington, and as the Director of Water and Water Pollution Control for the City of McDonough. Jeffares is the owner of an environmental services business in Locust Grove.
According to Jeffares’ own promotional literature, the senator, who serves as Vice-Chairman on the Water Authority Board, owns “J&T Environmental Services, and works to preserve and protect water quality in communities across Georgia. J&T provides operations and management of water and wastewater treatment plants, water distribution and collection systems.”
The senator also carried bills this legislative session that would benefit utilities, including the water authority.
According to county documents, members of the water authority are required to be appointed every two years at the first meeting of the board each January.
Jeffares’ term on the water authority technically has expired.
However, since a new person has not been nominated and elected to the slot, Jeffares remains on the Water Authority board until a new member is named.
Commission Chairman Tommy Smith told the Henry Daily Herald that, prior to Jeffares publishing the notice of intention to introduce the bill that would have taken away his regular voting rights on the commission, he had openly said he is opposed to re-appointing the senator to the Water Authority because he considers the appointment to be a conflict of interest, which is an ethical breach.
Jeffares also serves as chairman of the senate ethics committee.
A call and voicemail message to Jeffares’ local office in Henry County went unreturned Tuesday.
Torbet has have never held elected office, but said she sees herself as a government watchdog. She said this week she has talked to numerous citizens who strongly oppose the unsolicited change in county government Jeffares proposed.
“He (Jeffares) wants to reduce the chairman to a ceremonial figurehead,” she said.
“The ballot box doesn’t mean anything. Elections don’t mean anything, if we are going to let things like this happen,” Torbet added.
She alleged, “Rick Jeffares wants to hand county government over to the county manager, who is not elected, and steal the election away from Tommy Smith.”
“We should not be the victim of this kind of political maneuvering,” said Torbet.