Let the voters decide

The Sullivan County Charter Review Commission in June delivered a final report to the county legislature, and 12 of the 13 members recommended that the county change its form of government from one with an appointed county manager to one with an elected county executive. Going into the process of reviewing the charter only a couple members of the commission were in favor of the change. But after researching the matter for 30 months, all but one of them came to the conclusion that an elected county executive is the way to go.

The most direct path to move forward with that process is for the legislature to decide there is enough merit in the suggestion to allow the question to go to a voter referendum in 2018. At this point, it’s not possible to know which way the legislature will decide.

The River Reporter sent emails to the nine legislators regarding the matter, and three of them responded.

Legislator Terri Ward wrote, “I have several reservations with the county executive form of government, but I am an open-minded person, and I am looking forward to asking the charter commission the questions that I have when we meet with them.”

Legislator Ira Steingart wrote, “The legislature plans on discussing the issue. I haven’t made a decision and want to keep an open mind until after we have this discussion.”

Legislator Alan Sorensen wrote, “I am keeping an open mind on the subject. I do feel the structure/form of a potential county executive form of government needs to be worked out before putting the question to the voters.

“For example, what would the limitations of the county executive be, and how would the powers of the legislature be diminished? It is my understanding there is great deal of latitude in terms of how a county executive form of government is crafted. This is where the discussion needs to take place.”

Bill Liblick, a member of the commission, said that at this point it’s impossible to know if the legislature will go along with the position of most of the members of the charter review commission, i.e. that the matter should be the subject of a public debate, after which Sullivan County voters should decide whether to switch or not.

The main argument for not making the change is one of cost. A county executive would need his or her own staff and attorney, and that would increase costs. But the experience in Ulster County, which switched to a county executive in 2006, is that the newly elected executive, Mike Hein, had enough authority in that county that he could significantly reduce that county’s workforce, which he did through attrition. According to testimony from the Ulster County attorney, Beatrice Havranek, Hein reduced the number of county employees from 1,800 to 1,300 and reduced the county budget from $363 million to $330, resulting in a tax cut for Ulster property owners.

Another reason for adopting the change is that the county-executive form would be more easily understood in terms of lines of responsibility because that form—an elected executive working with an elected legislature—mirrors the way things work at the state and national level. As the commissioners’ report points out, “Sullivan County’s current form of government, with an elected legislature and an appointed manager, has few parallels in civic life. The division of powers and responsibilities within this form of government is not immediately apparent to everyone. In fact, even members of our county government have not always been able to agree on where the lines of authority should be drawn. On occasion, this has led to confusion and conflict.”

Anyone who has witnessed county government operate for any length time can attest to the validity of that observation. With a county executive, there would be clarity that the elected executive has the responsibility for most day-to-day decisions, while the legislature would still control the budget and level of taxation.

There are two public forums scheduled for discussion of the issue. One is on October 19 at the government center at 2 p.m., and the other is October 25 at 6 p.m. At these forums the intent of the legislature may become clearer. But even if the majority of the legislature decides the voters should not be given the opportunity to make this decision, the question could make it to the ballot by way of the process of permissive referendum. That was tried before by some residents of the county in 2009 and 2010, but never resulted in a vote.

This time around, there is more momentum behind the effort, and the view of this newspaper is that this is a decision for the voters to make, and the legislature should not stand in the way of the will of their constituents.

 

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