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A new course for county government

By By Alan Sorensen
January 16, 2013

Right now, all nine Sullivan County legislators are facing some difficult decisions in terms of how to set a new course for county government that envisions fiscal responsibility, ethical conduct and smaller, leaner government. The six new members of this group, with a year of experience under their belts, are considering important changes to address significant problems of prior administrations and to build a better county government.

One change is to address an imbalance of power that allows the county manager to basically run county government as he or she deems fit, including making unilateral policy decisions with only cursory oversight from the county legislature. This imbalance of power has resulted in part from the county legislature’s inability to hire and fire a county manager by a 5-4 majority vote. Right now, it takes a 6-3 vote.

To make matters worse, the county manager’s contract makes it almost impossible to fire him.

When the Sullivan County Charter was created in 1996, the county manager was intended to serve “at the will” of a majority of the legislature. This is common practice. At-will employment is a doctrine of American law in which either party can terminate the relationship at any time with or without any advance warning. The employer is free to discharge individuals “for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all.” Likewise, the employee is equally free to quit, strike, or otherwise cease work.

In 2007, the county charter was amended to require a two-thirds majority “to appoint, suspend or remove the county manager.” This seemingly insignificant revision not only changed the original intent of the charter, but also undermined the authority of the elected county legislature by shifting great power to the county manager position and has caused big problems since then; in particular, the county manager answers to only three of nine legislators and communicates to them alone important information about how policy is being created and driven. He or she basically has carte blanche in working with those three alone to conduct county business.