The City of Hoschton is attempting to do a major revision of the town's charter, the governing document that acts like a constitution governing how the city government is supposed to operate.
There are a number of small changes being discussed, but the big issue is a plan to change the city government's day-to-day operations from being the mayor's job to a city manager form of government.
The current city charter gives the mayor the authority to oversee the daily business of city government. That is a pretty good system in most small towns where there are few big issues to be handled.
But Hoschton is growing. The Crosswind development will, in the coming years, more than triple the town's population. Other development projects, both residential and industrial, will also likely be on the city's agenda as Metro Atlanta spreads out into the Hoschton-Braselton growth corridor.
The town's leaders recognized this reality last year and took a tentative first step toward professionalizing the town's government by creating the position of City Administrator. With that structure, the mayor essentially delegates most of the daily duties to the administrator, but does retain the authority to make the final decisions.
A city manager form of government takes that to the next level. In creating a manager government, the mayor's power is diluted and the manager is in charge of the daily duties, including most of the hiring and firing of city staff. In addition, the responsibility for getting things done is taken out of the hands of the city council and put into the hands of the manager. As a practical matter, that means city council members could no longer call up a city employee and demand something be done — the employees would work directly for the manager, not the mayor or individual council members.
This is a "professional" government structure and has been adopted by most towns and counties of any size in the state. Braselton, Jefferson, Commerce and all the area's counties have manager government structures.
But the transition is always difficult. Citizens accustomed to calling the mayor or a council member to complain about trash pickup, or a barking dog, would have to instead file their complaints with city hall. Individual council members would no longer have the power to intervene by ordering city employees around.
Sometimes, citizens don't like having to call the "hired help" and would rather deal with their elected officials. And very often, mayor and council members are reluctant to give up their power to a hired manager.
In short, there is good and bad about manager governments in small towns.
But it's not rocket science. Whenever a town reaches a certain size, it should move to a professional government. Hoschton isn't reinventing the wheel by studying the idea — they have plenty of precedents to follow.
Still, there is a major question in Hoschton of timing. Should that government, which is embroiled in turmoil and internal struggles, move now to change its charter?
That isn't an idle issue. Sometimes in government, timing is more important than the action itself.
Consider the situation at hand:
• The Hoschton council has gotten a very late start on discussing a major change to its charter. The process has to be completed by mid-January so that it can be introduced in the Georgia Legislature. Given the upcoming holidays and the specific legal requirements of a charter change, that will be very difficult to do.
• Two of Hoschton's council members are brand new. Neither one knows very much about how the city operates today, much less how it should operate under a city manager system. Both new members also lack any reference for the process of changing the city charter. They appeared either uninformed or naive in recent discussions about the issue and about the legal requirements necessary to affect a change in the charter.
• Both the mayor and mayor pro tem are facing a recall vote sometime in early 2020. If both are recalled, which appears very likely today, the city would lose its two most experienced council members who have been through the charter change process before. All of that could leave a plan to change the charter hanging without resolution.
• Even if the current council drafts a change for the charter, both Rep. Tommy Benton and Sen. Frank Ginn will have to agree to the plan before they introduce it. There is no guarantee that they will agree to such a major change drafted by a lame-duck administration that's embroiled in political upheaval.
In the larger picture, Hoschton has much bigger issues to deal with in the coming weeks than changing its charter. If both the mayor and mayor pro tem are removed from office, the council will only have one experienced member left. There will have to be special elections held. And the two newest council members need to get a lot of training under their belts to really be effective.
So while the idea of moving the city to a city manager government is a good one, it's not imperative that it get done this year. The city has a hired administrator who is currently running the town on a day-to-day basis. That's a big struggle given all the political controversy in the community over the last few months. Adding a charter change to his agenda makes that job much more difficult.
The focus today should be on keeping the city moving forward as the recall and possible special elections play out.
Once that process is completed and the council gets some stability and experience, then it will be time to discuss changing Hoschton's form of government.
But attempting to change the town's charter amid all of today's instability could create more problems than it resolves.
The intentions are good, but the timing isn't. Waiting a year to update the charter won't hurt the city and would give some breathing space for everyone involved.