A Beaufort County Council committee unanimously agreed Tuesday to ask voters whether the county should change its form of government so the auditor and treasurer could be appointed instead of elected.
The proposed referendum, recommended for approval by the Governmental Committee, is still several steps from hitting the 2012 ballot. It would need to pass three readings of the full council and gain approval from the U.S. Department of Justice.
South Carolina law specifies several forms of government that counties can use.
Beaufort County operates under the council-administrator form; the proposal would change that to council-manager. The two systems are nearly identical, but under council-manager, the county auditor and treasurer can be appointed.
Switching to council-manager was initially floated in 2010 as a way to restore accountability to the Treasurer's Office after an employee there was arrested and accused of embezzling $210,000 from the county.
Council members suggested Tuesday that cost and efficiency advantages also might occur from placing all of the county's financial functions under one department, which isn't possible if the auditor and treasurer are elected. Other committee members, however, worried residents might perceive the referendum as a power grab by council or staff.
But Councilman Stu Rodman said the county owes voters an opportunity to "hear both sides and to decide which way they want their government run."
If the referendum were added to the 2012 ballot and approved by a majority of voters, the change would take effect in January 2013, said county attorney Josh Gruber. The current treasurer and auditor would be allowed to finish their elected terms.
Because Treasurer Doug Henderson and Auditor Sharon Burris were installed to four-year terms in July, their positions could not be filled by appointment until 2015, Gruber said.
Follow reporter Kyle Peterson at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.