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Should Chester County vote for or hire its day-to-day leader? Voters may soon decide.

Chester County took an early step this week toward changing its form of government.

Chester County Council approved the first of three votes needed to put a referendum to voters. The referendum would ask voters if they want to want to add one new council member and swap its supervisor for a county administrator.

This isn’t the first time.

The county switched from a supervisor to a manager in 2002, but two years later switched back. In 2016 council passed early votes looking to change to an administrator but did not finish the process.

The current supervisor, Shane Stuart, said he believes the same problems that arose during past efforts would return this time. A special election could cost $20,000 and the salary to hire a qualified administrator would be expensive, he said.

“In my opinion the voters will not support this change,” he said.

A move to an administrator also could cost Stuart his position. But it would align Chester County with much of the state. Of 46 counties, 34 have administrators.

“By a large majority, most counties use the administrator form,” said John DeLoache, senior staff attorney with the South Carolina Association of Counties.

State law allows two to 12 council members elected for two- or four-year terms. The supervisor is elected at-large and serves as chairman of the county council. The supervisor, who serves a two- or four-year term, votes only to break ties on council decisions.

Chester County now has a Council-Supervisor form of government.

Chester County has six council districts, each with one representative. All council members and the county supervisor serve four-year terms. Stuart was elected in 2018. His term runs through 2022.

Council sets the salary of the supervisor. The supervisor serves as chief administrative officer for the county, executes policies and legislative actions, coordinates county operations, prepares annual operating and capital budgets, oversees spending and other related functions.

Council members can’t remove the supervisor or appointed employees without a two-thirds vote. Apart from inquiries and official investigations, council members can’t give direct orders to county employees.

If voters get a chance to decide on a new form of government, it would be a Council-Administrator setup.

State law allows three to 12 council members elected to two- or four-year terms. Unlike a supervisor, an administrator is appointed and employed by council. The administrator is responsible for all departments in the county.

The administrator’s daily role is similar to that of the supervisor. However, an administrator doesn’t vote, even in ties. So the seventh council member would be needed.

The administrator must inform council of anticipated tax revenue and the cost required to meet financial requirements when presenting operating and capital budgets for approval.

Council-Administrator is the format Lancaster County uses, with seven council districts. It’s almost the same as the Council-Manager format in York County, with its seven districts.

The only differences in Council-Administrator and Council-Manager are the number of council members (the manager route can have five to 12) and whether the county treasurer and auditor may be appointed rather than elected.

Joanie Winters, county attorney, told council Monday night there are options for when to hold the referendum if council passes all three votes. The question would have to be certified 90 days before a special election, or by August of next year to get it on the 2020 general election ballot. The primary vote next summer could be an option.

There are advantages to avoiding a special election.

“There is a cost involved, as opposed to the general which you’re paying for anyway,” Winters said.

Stuart said he believes the most significant impact of the change to an administrator would be the person handling day-to-day county operations would no longer report directly to voters.

“I wish I had positives to say, but I firmly believe the county supervisor should always have to answer to the voters and citizens,” Stuart said.

The actual duties of a supervisor compared to an administrator are similar, DeLoache said.

“The biggest difference would be it would end the kind of dual role the supervisor has,” he said.

York County, one of just two counties with the Council-Manager setup, has council Chairman Michael Johnson and interim county manager David Hudspeth. Lancaster County has administrator Steve Willis and council chairman Steve Harper. In Chester County, Stuart fills both roles.

DeLoache said there aren’t specific advantages or disadvantages to either type of government. Both can function well. For some voters, an issue may be the talent pool for the job. Because a supervisor is elected, he or she has to be a county resident. An administrator or manager is more the typical hired employee.

“You’re not limited in who council can hire as an administrator,” DeLoache said. “It gives you the ability to do a national search if you have a growing county.”

Chester County Council next meets Oct. 21. Council has five scheduled meetings before the end of 2019.

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