North Carolina

County Government - A History

As stated in the introduction to the Counties, the Fundamental Constitutions of 1669 provided for separate and distinct counties, each with their own individual government. Each county was to have legislative, judicial, and administrative functions.

However, the real reason for the desire to establish separate counties was that each Lord Proprietor would be given gigantic amounts of land for each county created, and the Lords Proprietors also planned to provide large tracts in each county to their desired landed gentry - the Landgraves, Caciques, and Baronets. Landgraves were to be allocated 48,000 acres, Caciques (aka Cassiques) were to be allocated 24,000 acres, and Baronets were to be allocated 12,000 acres.

The nobility envisioned by the Lords Proprietors never fully materialized. Many reasons may be speculated as the cause, for example, the Lords Proprietors did not live in the colony; they lived in England and were unable to follow up on their design. Also, the New World spirit did not seem consistent with the ideals of a nobility with its potential for repression of lower ranks. Yes, some folks were identified as Landgraves, Caciques, and Baronets from around 1675 to 1720, and they were granted large tracts of lands all across the Colony. However, these people had no "overlordship" to any of the other people living beside them - they merely had more land, and were therefore capable of amassing greater fortunes from that land.

As the population of the Colony slowly increased and began to move further and further inland, travel became quite difficult for the general populace. The first roads were merely paths/trails that had long been used by the Indians and larger animals for hundreds of years. Water transportation was the most efficient, yet due to the terrain the rivers and larger creeks only led to the Atlantic Ocean, not to points further north or south (to any great degree). By 1690, the colonists were so widely dispersed along the banks of the rivers and creeks of eastern Carolina - from Virginia to the Savannah River - it was clearly apparent to everyone that there was a definite need for a more-distributed form of colonial government.

From the beginning, there were two distinct and fairly distant groups of settlers - those in the Albemarle Region and those in and around Charles Town along the Ashley River. The Lords Proprietors wanted to consider these two groups as "one Colony" and they also wanted to govern these peoples with a centralized form of government for the "one Colony." Practicality quickly proved this desire to be impossible. The two groups grew independently of each other, and they had different needs and different problems to overcome. By the 1690s, there were open discussions about considering these two groups as separate colonies, and the idea of a North Carolina and a South Carolina began to take root. It would be decades before the "split" was actually made, and it would be another hundred years before the exact boundaries would be in place and agreed to by both colonies. However, even the Lords Proprietors saw the pracicality of governing these two groups separately.

In 1689, the Lords Proprietors appointed two governors - one for "Ye Lands North and East of the Cape Feare," and one for "Ye Lands South and West of the Cape Feare." This scheme only lasted for a few years, but its realities were firmly imprinted in the minds of the leaders and the populace of the entire Colony - it was now only a matter of time (and sorting out the details) for when the "one Colony" would become two separate entities with their own separate governments.

What was to become North Carolina began along the Albemarle Sound and slowly grew inland along the major rivers and creeks, and slightly southward towards the Cape Fear River. What was to become South Carolina began at Charles Town and slowly grew along all the major rivers south of the Cape Fear down to the Savanannah River, with some settlers going inland as far as the rivers would take them conveniently. Even with two governments (allegedly acting as one) - one in Albemarle and one in Charles Town - it was increasingly more difficult to conduct official business across the Colony.

The first government at Albemarle in 1665 consisted of a Governor (later to be a deputy governor) and his Council, and a General Assembly - twelve delegates selected to meet annually as a legislature. The Council and the General Assembly were comprised of "citizens" that were either appointed or elected. These delegates had to travel to where the governor was residing to conduct their official business. This official business included the discussion and finalization of "rules and regulations" (effectively laws) for the Colony, the evaluation of criminal proceedings, the recording of legal transactions such as the sale of land, and for the financial matters of the Colony.

This system continued until 1668, when Albemarle County was divided into four precincts - Berkeley (Perquimans), Carteret (Currituck), Shaftsbury (Chowan), and Albemarle (Pasquotank) - which were each allowed five representatives. As new precincts were created and the population slowly increased the frontier moved westward, these new precincts were usually alloted two representatives, although some were allowed more than two.

This unicameral legislature continued until circa 1669/1670, when a bicameral form of government was created due to the Fundamental Constituttions. The Governor and his Council constituted the "upper house." The "lower house," the House of Burgesses, was composed of representatives elected from the colony's various precincts (counties). The House of Burgesses adopted its own rules of procedure and elected its own speaker and other officers. However, it could only meet when called into session by the Governor and only at a location specified by him.

In order for a bicameral legislature to work, representatives had to be elected in some systematic way - a way that the citizens were comfortable with, and a way that met the needs of the government. Since 99% of the colonists were originally from the British Isles, the introduction of "precincts" (or "counties") was not new to the citizens. England had introduced the "county system" to its citizens very early in its history, dating back to the 1100s when "shires" were established throughout the British Isles. By the late 1600s, the English "county system" was well established across the entire country, and all of its citizens understood this concept of localized government.

In 1696, settlement had commenced in earnest on the south side of the Albemarle Sound such that a "new" precinct was quickly needed to accommodate the pressing needs of all the new settlers - and - Bath County was created. This served the people for almost a decade, but by 1705, Bath County was divided into three new precincts - Archdale, Pamtecough, and Wickham, each given two representatives in the General Assembly. In 1712, Archdale was renamed to Craven Precinct, Pametcough was renamed to Beaufort Precinct, and Wickham was renamed to Hyde Precinct.

Although the population increased and the number or precincts (counties) increased in quantity, there were no definitive rules of governance at the "county level." Not every county had a county seat, and not every county had its own courthouse, much less its own judges, attorneys, or other officials. In 1722, the General Assembly passed an Act authorizing a majority of the justices of the peace of the seven precincts to levy taxes, raise money, purchase land, and have courthouses constructed for each precinct. It would take many years for all of the existing precincts to implement this Act of 1722 - primarily because of the creation of newer precincts that happened in the meantime - newer precincts carved out of existing ones, thereby changing the established precincts considerably - not only geographically, but also the changing of the population.

On March 8, 1738/9, the General Assembly passed an Act changing the precincts to counties and established a sheriff for each county to perform the duties of the colony's singular Provost Marshal. Thus, the term "county" has been used for the subdivisions of North Carolina ever since. Each county was to identify and locate its own county seat and to set up county courts to meet the needs of its citizens with respect to official business. The county court system under British rule was fairly standardized and everyone seemed to understand what its purpose was - and what its limitations were. Certain civil proceedings and all criminal proceedings had to be brought before a higher court, but the everyday business was transacted at the county seats.

In pre-Revolutionary North Carolina, the county was the primary political and geographical unit. The colony relied heavily upon the county for the administration of local government. Justices of the peace, as a body or court, administered the affairs of the county. The justices were usually chosen from the ranks of the county’s wealthiest leaders and ultimately chosen by the governor with advice from his Executive Council..

Independence from the British crown brought no major changes in this system. In the early days of statehood, the governor appointed justices. In making his appointments, however, the governor often relied on recommendations from the General Assembly. Members of the legislature had a powerful voice in the selection of justices of the peace for their county, a voice that also gave legislators a good deal of influence in the government at the county level.

Justices of the peace in each county formed a Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions. Any three justices, sitting together, constituted a quorum for the transaction of business. Justices typically met each January to select a chairman and five of their members to hold regular court session for the year. During their early existence, Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions appointed county sheriffs, coroners and constables. These offices later became elective positions with the sheriff and coroner elected from the county at large and constables from captain’s militia muster districts.

Justices of the peace also appointed clerks of court, registers of deeds, county attorneys, county trustees or treasurer, county surveyors and wardens of the poor. Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions undertook judicial, as well as administrative, functions. The administrative duties included assessing and levying taxes; establishing and maintaining roads, bridges, and ferries; granting licenses to taverns and controlling food prices; and erecting and controlling mills. Through their power of appointment, justices supervised the work of law enforcement officers, administrative officers of the court, surveyors and the wardens of the poor. Sheriffs typically collected taxes.

In their judicial capacity, Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions heard all civil cases except those assigned by law to a single justice or to a higher court. Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions adjudicated probate, dower, and guardianship cases and administered estates. They had jurisdiction in criminal cases in which the punishment did not extend to life, limb or member.

The county itself was a single political unit. There were no townships. Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, through their appointive and administrative powers, exerted strong control over county affairs. Voters effectively had no direct control over these courts, which meant they had no direct control over county government. This rather undemocratic arrangement continued until the end of the Civil War.

When the Constitution of North Carolina was rewritten in 1868, the drafters, many of whom were acquainted with local government systems in other parts of the country, devised a new and more democratic plan of organization for the counties. The position of justice of the peace was retained, but their powers were substantially reduced and the old Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions were eliminated. Judicial responsibilities were distributed between the justices and the North Carolina Superior Court, while the administrative powers justices had once exercised were assigned to county commissions composed of five members elected at large by each county’s voters. County commissions managed public buildings, schools, roads and bridges, and all county financial affairs, including taxation and collection.

The wide appointive powers of the Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions were not transferred to the county commissions. Voters in each county now elected the sheriff, coroner, clerk of court, register of deeds, surveyor, and treasurer. Sheriffs continued to serve as tax collector.

Each county was divided into townships, a distinct innovation in North Carolina, and the voters of each township elected two justices of the peace and a clerk who served as the governing body of the township. The township board, under the direct supervision of its county commission, managed road and bridge construction, maintenance and repair. The township boards also conducted property assessments for taxation purposes. Each township had a constable and a school committee.

The post-war changes in county government were designed initially to favor the Republican Party. The party’s base in North Carolina consisted at first of newly-enfranchised blacks who had been slaves just three years before, as well as of poorer whites who had opposed secession and remained loyal to the Union throughout the Civil War. Ending the ability of justices of the peace to dominate county governments was meant to destroy forever the political power of the landowners, professional people and merchants who had dominated state government before the war and, in many cases, had led the secession movement.

Most of the former ruling class had been disenfranchised by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States because they had “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof” by actively supporting the Confederacy. These elites formed a new political party called the Conservative Party devoted to restoring as much of the pre-war social and governmental system as was possible under the circumstances. One of their primary targets was the new system of county government contained in the Constitution of 1868.

Seven years after the signing of the Constitution of 1868 established county commissions and townships, political control of state government shifted back to the antebellum ruling class. They wasted little time in rearranging the system of county government to retain that control permanently. A constitutional convention in 1875 amended the Constitution of North Carolina to allow the General Assembly to modify the plan of county government established in 1868.

The legislature was quick to exercise its newly-won authority. County commissions were not abolished outright, but their members would now be selected by each county’s justices of the peace rather than by vote of the people. And, while county commissions retained most of the administrative responsibilities entrusted to them in the 1868 constitution, their decisions on matters of substance required approval of the majority of county justices, all of whom were elected by the legislature. Justices of the peace administered all elections. In many counties, the board of commissioners was appointed by the state legislature.

This troubling arrangement lasted for twenty years. The right of the people to elect county commissioners was restored in most counties in 1895. At the same time, the requirement that county commissions gain the approval of a majority of the county’s justices of the peace before their administrative decisions could be implemented was repealed. Townships were stripped of their powers, but they were retained as convenient administrative subdivisions, primarily for road building and maintenance purposes. Finally, in 1905 the people of all 100 counties in North Carolina regained direct control of their respective county commissions through the ballot box.

Counties remain a fundamental unit of local government in North Carolina to this day. They are not, however, completely independent entities. Nearly fifty years ago, a majority of the NC Supreme Court had this to say about the relationship between counties and state government:

In the exercise of ordinary government functions, [counties] are simply agencies
of the State, constituted for the convenience of local administration in certain portions
of the State’s territory, and in the exercise of such functions they are subject to
almost unlimited legislative control, except when the power is restricted by
constitutional provisions.

This statement still adequately sums up the balance of power between counties and the state in North Carolina. If the General Assembly decides to assign counties any given power or responsibility and the state constitution does not specifically prohibit it, county administrations must accept the legislature’s decisions. The role counties play in administering policies set by the General Assembly, however, shifts almost constantly as successive generations of legislators adopt different policies and implementation strategies.

Financial emergency and stress have often led state legislators to re-examine of the allocation of governmental responsibilities between state and local governments. Until Governor Angus W. McLean’s administration (1925-1929), the state allowed counties, cities, and other local units almost unlimited freedom to borrow money and issue bonds for various local purposes. Many counties, their commissions unsophisticated in matters of governmental finance, issued too much debt and saw their credit ratings drop to the point where they had to pay crippling rates of interest.

Some counties even faced bankruptcy because of their fiscal imprudence. Based on this experience and recognizing a statewide concern with excessive local debt, the legislature in 1927 established the County Government Advisory Commission, giving it the statutory authority necessary to correct the situation. This commission worked hard to reform local government financing throughout the state and its successor, the Local Government Commission, remains one of the bulwarks of North Carolina government today.

Experience with various local arrangements for road building and maintenance had a comparable effect on state policy. It is not accidental that North Carolina counties are no longer responsible for this work. Reflecting the concern of the people of the state, the General Assembly recognized that the state’s future economic interests dictated a coordinated transportation planning and construction effort on a scale far greater than any single county could undertake on its own. The legislators defined state policy on roads accordingly and the impetus for transportation planning and construction passed to the state.

Comparable redefinitions of the proper balance of responsibilities between state and county governments have become commonplace in the latter part of the 20th century. Responsibility for operating schools, conducting elections, housing the state’s system of lower courts and their records, maintaining property ownership and mortgage records, enforcing much of the state’s criminal law, administering public health and public welfare programs, and carrying on state programs designed to promote the development of agriculture has shifted, in large measure, between the county and the state level for much of this century.

Some of these functions are the responsibility of county commissions, others are assigned to other county government boards that have varying relationships with their respective county commission. It appears clear, however, that North Carolina will continue to depend on its county governments to carry out a large number of essential governmental operations for the foreseeable future.

Each county in the state has a county commission, but no two commissions are exactly alike. North Carolina’s county commissions display a sometimes bewildering diversity in size, term of office, method of election, method of selecting the chairman, and administrative structure. These variations usually bear no correlation to county population or any other objective criteria.

Fifty counties have commissions elected at-large, while another 31 require commissioners to meet district residency requirements, but run for election at large throughout the entire county. Three counties actually require nomination by district residency while conducting county commission races at-large. A growing number of counties have either a combination of at-large and district elected seats (11) or solely district-elected seats (5). In nearly all counties, the commission chair is chosen by commissioners themselves. In Jackson County, however, the chairman is elected separately by the voters. A referendum held in November, 1988, in Haywood County ended that county’s elected chairmanship position as of November, 1990.

All county commissions are elected by vote of the people in partisan elections held in November of even-numbered years, the same time as elections for members of the General Assembly and other state officers. Not every county elects all members of its commission every two years. Due to staggered four-year terms, two-year terms and straight four-year terms, about half of the state’s county commissioners are elected at each general election. Newly-elected commissioners take office on the first Monday in December following their election. Candidates for county commissioner do not have to campaign as members of a political party in order to run for office, but this is almost invariably the practice.

After the 1988 elections, 364 of the 521 county commissioners were Democrats and 157 were Republicans. This resulted in 68 of the 100 county commissions being Democrat-controlled while 32 were Republican-controlled. Vacancies on county commissions are filled by appointment of the remaining members. A person appointed to fill a vacancy must be a member of the same political party as the person he or she replaces if the former commissioner was elected as the nominee of a political party. The county executive committee of the party in question has the right to be consulted before the appointment is made, although the commission is not required by law to follow any advice the committee may give.

If the vacancy occurs in a two-year term or in the last two years of a four-year term, the appointment is for the remainder of the unexpired term. If the vacancy occurs in the first two years of a four-year term, the appointment runs only until the next general election, when an election is held to fill the office for the remainder of the unexpired term.

Occasionally, a county commission finds itself deadlocked and unable to fill a vacancy. Since nearly all of the county commissions have an odd number of members, one vacancy can leave the remaining commissioners equally divided between two candidates, so that neither candidate can receive a majority vote. Recognizing this problem, state law provides that when a county commission fails to fill a vacancy in its membership within 60 days, the clerk to the commission must report the vacancy to the clerk of superior court, who must then fill the vacancy within 10 days after the vacancy is reported.

State law also provides for another contingency that has not yet occurred among North Carolina county commissions. If the number of vacancies on a commission leaves it without a quorum, the chair must appoint enough members to make up a quorum and the commission then proceeds to fill the vacancies. If the office of the chair is one of those vacancies, the clerk of superior court may act in the chair’s place upon the petition of any remaining member of the commission or any five registered voters of the county. Each appointee must be a member of the same political party as the person he or she is to replace and that party’s county executive committee must be consulted.

If a newly-elected commissioner, due to illness or some other reason, is unable to take the oath of office in the December following his or her election, the oath may be administered at a later time. The state constitution, however, requires public officers to continue in office until their successors are elected and have qualified by taking the oath of office. A member of a county commission who is defeated for election or chooses not to seek re-election must continue in office until a successor takes the oath of office.

In all counties, the commission itself must choose a vice-chair to act in the absence or disability of the chair. Except in the nine counties mentioned, each commission designates its chairman at its first regular meeting in December for a term of one year. The method of selection varies according to local custom. In most counties, the chair serves as long as he or she is re-elected and retains the confidence of his colleagues. In others, the commissioner who garnered the highest vote in the general election is usually designated the chair. In still others, the chairmanship rotates among the members.

The commission chair presides at all meetings. By law, chairs must vote on all questions pending before a commission unless they are excused by a standing rule of the board or by consent of the remaining members. Chairs may not, however, vote to break a tie vote in which they participated. Chairs are generally recognized by law as the chief executive officer of the county and may acquire considerable prestige and influence by virtue of their position. While chairs have no more legal power than other members of a commission, they do have special authority to declare states of emergency under state laws governing riots and civil disorders. They also have the statutory authority to call special meetings of the commission on their own initiative.

Commissions are required by state law to hold at least one meeting each month, although they may meet as frequently as they deem necessary. Many county commissions in North Carolina now hold two regular meetings each month. Commissions may select any day of the month and any public place within the county for their regular meetings. In the absence of a formal resolution of the commission selecting some other time and place, however, state law requires county commissions to meet on the first Monday of each month at the local county courthouse. State law has never specified a time of day for regularly-scheduled county commission meetings; however, many commissions currently meet at 10 a.m. In recent years, some commissions have begun to hold some of their regular meetings in the evening to allow greater public attendance.

Special commission meetings may be called by the chair or by a majority of the other commissioners. State law provides specific rules for calling special meetings. A special meeting must be called by written notice stating the time and place of the meeting and the subjects to be considered. The notice must be posted on the courthouse bulletin board and delivered to each member of the commission at least 48 hours before the meeting. Unless all members attend or sign a written waiver, only business related to the subjects stated in the notice may be transacted at a special meeting. The usual rules do not apply to special meetings called to deal with an emergency, which is not defined by state law. Even when calling a session for an emergency, however, the persons who call the meeting must take “reasonable action to inform the other members and the public of the meeting.”

County commissions are subject to the Open Meetings Statute of 1971. This law forbids most public bodies, both state and local, to hold meetings that are not open to the public. The General Assembly has revised the law during the last decade to simplify its language and remove many exceptions to the general rule that public bodies must meet in open session. In general, the law prohibits a majority of the members of a county commissioners from gathering together in closed or secret session for a purpose of “conducting hearings, participating in deliberations or voting upon or otherwise transacting public business,” except when the subject of discussion falls within one of the exceptions set out in the statute. The exceptions are:

- Acquisition, lease or sale of property.
- Negotiations with county employees or their representatives or independent contractors as to the terms or conditions of employment.
- Matters concerning hospital management, operation and discipline.
- Any matter falling under physician-patient or lawyer-client privilege.
- Conferences with legal counsel and other deliberations concerning court actions or proceedings.
- Matters relating to the location or expansion of industries or other businesses.
- Matters relating to contingency plans for riots, civil disorders or other emergencies involving criminal misconduct.

The law leaves most procedural matters to the discretion of the commission, but it does set out a few rules that must be followed. The commission may take no action unless a quorum is present and the law defines a quorum as a majority of the full membership of the commission without regard to vacancies. For example, a quorum of a five-member board is always three members, even though there may be two vacancies. Once a quorum is present at a meeting, a member cannot destroy the quorum by leaving the room without the consent of the remaining members. The law provides that if a member withdraws from the meeting room without being excused by a majority of the members remaining, he or she is counted as present for quorum purposes. The board also has the legal power to command the sheriff to take absent members into custody and bring them to the meeting place. Such action, however, can be taken only when a quorum is already present.

State law requires all members to vote on each question that comes before the commission unless they are excused by their colleagues. Excuses are permitted only when the matter before the commission concerns the financial interest or official conduct of the member requesting the excuse. Although this duty is clearly present in the law, there are no enforcement provisions for it. Commissions are required to make certain that the clerk to the commission keeps full and accurate minutes of its proceedings. The minute book must be open to public inspection and the results of each vote taken by the commission must be recorded in it. Each member has the right to demand a roll-call vote on any question put to the commission and when such a demand is made, the names of those voting on each side of the question must be recorded.

Commissions have the power to adopt their own written rules of procedure. The only legal restraint on these rules is that they must be “in the spirit of generally accepted principles of parliamentary procedure.” Except for the few special powers held by the commission chair, the legal powers and duties of county commissioners are vested in the commission acting as a body. An individual commissioner has no power of his or her own. When meeting with fellow commissioners in a validly-called and held meeting, however, a majority of the commission has and may exercise control of those functions of county government entrusted to the care of the county commissioners. Commissions take formal action in one of three ways — through orders, resolutions and ordinances.

Although these terms are often used interchangeably, their definitions may be useful to illustrate how a commission acts. Orders usually direct a county administrative officer to take or refrain from taking a specified action. For example, a commission may enter an order directing the county manager to advertise for bids for a new office building. An order may also formally declare the existence of a given state of fact, such as an order declaring the results of a bond election. Finally, an order may sometimes be used to decide a question before commission, such as an order awarding a construction contract to the lowest responsible bidder.

Resolutions usually express the consensus of a commission on a question before it. For example, a commission may adopt a resolution requesting the county’s legislative delegation to introduce a local bill or it may resolve to petition the NC Department of Transportation to pave a rural road.

An ordinance is a formal legislative action of the commission. An ordinance is the county-level equivalent of an act of the General Assembly. Commissions adopt ordinances governing such varied matters as zoning, subdivision control, stray dogs and cats, use of county parking lots, street numbers on rural roads, use of the county landfill, and other legislative matters.

State law does not regulate the manner in which orders and resolutions are adopted by county commissions, beyond the minimum requirements of a valid meeting at which a quorum is present. There are, however, several laws governing the adoption of ordinances. An ordinance may be adopted at the meeting in which it is introduced only if it receives a unanimous affirmative vote, all members of the commission present and voting. If it passes with a less-than-unanimous vote, it may be finally passed by a majority vote at any time within 100 days after its introduction. This rule does not apply to budget ordinances, which may be passed at any meeting at which quorum is present, or to bond ordinances, which always require a public hearing before passage and, in most cases, approval by the voters as well. The law also doesn’t apply to any ordinance, such as a zoning ordinance, that state law requires a public hearing on before adoption.

Once an ordinance is adopted, it must be filed in an ordinance book that is separate from the minute book. The ordinance book must be indexed and made available for public inspection. The budget ordinance, bond ordinances, and ordinances of “limited interest or transitory nature” may be omitted from the ordinance book, but the book must contain a section showing the caption of each omitted ordinance and the page in the minute book in which it appears. County commissions have the statutory authority to adopt and issue entire codes of ordinances.

In the course of a normal year, a county commission in North Carolina will hold several public hearings. Some hearings, such as those held for the county budget or bonds or zoning ordinances, are required by state law. Some commissions hold public hearings on their own initiative to give interested citizens an opportunity to make their views known to the commission on controversial issues such as animal control ordinances. Laws requiring public hearings do not set out how the hearing must be conducted; they only require that one be held. The law does, however, allow a commission to adopt reasonable rules governing the conduct of public hearings.

These rules may regulate such matters as the time allotted to each speaker, designating spokesmen for groups, selecting delegates from groups when the hearing room is too small to hold everyone who wants to attend and maintaining order and decorum.

State law dictates many, if not most, features of county government organization. Sheriffs and registers of deeds are elected by vote of the people. Each county has a board of education, a board of health, a board of social services, and a board of elections. Many North Carolina counties now have a board of alcoholic beverage control. Commissioners directly appoint their county’s tax supervisor, tax collector, county attorney, county manager and clerk to the county commission. Every county has a number of county departments, agencies, and offices that the county commission administers without state intervention. Commissions have the authority to organize their county’s government in any way they see fit.

Except two counties in which the commission chair is a full-time administrative officer, each county commission in North Carolina has the discretionary authority to adopt the county manager form of government by appointing a manager. The commission must have a clerk, who is responsible for keeping the minute book and the ordinance book. The clerk also has a wide variety of miscellaneous duties, all directly related to official actions of the commission. In the past, registers of deeds usually doubled as clerk to the county commission, but this custom is quickly fading.

A few commissions now have a clerk solely dedicated to providing administrative staff support to the commission. Most commissions, however, have designated some county official or employee such as the manager or finance officer to act as clerk. Clerks are appointed directly by commissions and serve at their pleasure.

County commissions must appoint a county attorney, who serves as the commission’s legal adviser. The county attorney’s duties vary from county to county, as does the amount and method of their compensation. A few counties have established a full-time position of county attorney. In those counties, the county attorney may provide legal services to nearly all county agencies except the board of education, which always employs its own attorney. The county attorney is not appointed to a definite term, instead serving at the pleasure of the county commission.

Click Here to view/download an Adobe PDF file of the book entitled, "County Government and County Affairs in North Carolina," prepared by E.C. Branson and Others, published in 1918.


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