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Staggered terms and the charter commission

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The Sullivan County Legislature is currently deliberating whether to adopt staggered terms of office for the nine county legislators. The legislative form of government was adopted in 1994, when the board of supervisors was dissolved, and all nine county legislators were elected at the same time to four-year terms.

The new Sullivan County Charter adopted at the time required that a charter review commission be appointed every 10 years to recommend proposed changes to the charter if the commission members saw a need for change. The members of the legislature could then adopt or reject the proposed changes.

The most recent charter review commission issued a final report in May 2017. One of the recommendations was that, instead of electing all nine legislators in the same year, terms should be staggered. Most likely, voters would elect five in one year and four two years later. Another suggestion was for voters to elect three legislators one year, another three the next year and the final three the following year.

If the five-to-four model were to be adopted, some legislators would be elected to two-year terms in the elections coming up in November. 

At a public hearing on the question at the government center on March 21, four people spoke in favor of adopting staggered terms and two spoke against it.

Richard Coombe, a farmer and chair of the Sullivan County Republican Party, urged the legislators to adopt staggered terms with the five-to-four model. He said, “I urge you to move to staggered terms, five/four, that way you will have some continuity on a board that is dealing with rapid growth and rapid change.”

Les Kristt, owner of Kristt Kelly Office Systems, was also in favor of adopting the five-to-four model. He said that, with the status quo, “It is highly possible that, like the last election, over half of the new legislative team will have very little experience with county government.” He said county government is complicated and legislators need experience to make the right decisions.

Starr Hesse, an activist and former county employee, said she was opposed to the change to staggered terms because the voters needed to have the option of a “clean sweep” election. She detailed the election in 2011, when previous to the vote the legislators and the county manager were involved in contract talks with union employees. The county financial picture was tight at the time, and some legislators and the county manager said the only way to get back to financial stability was to withhold raises from employees and cut back their benefits. Yet the legislators voted pay hikes for themselves. Hesse said, “The voting public came and they spoke and they replaced that tight cabal of people that were voting against union raises and the general welfare of the [county employees] and they threw them out of office. If this staggered election system had been in place in 2011, they would never have been able to get out that ruling cabal.”

Ken Walter, a member of the Charter Review Commission, also said he was opposed to changing to staggered terms because it would be “confusing to the electorate.” He said when the county moved from the supervisor to the legislative form of government, only one supervisor was elected to the legislature. Therefore, eight of the new legislators had no experience running county government, yet, “they got the job done.”

There are certainly persuasive arguments on both sides of the issue. Next month, the legislature is going to make a decision on the matter. It could be a close vote. One legislator who was originally going to vote in favor said that, having seen how some legislators are behaving during this election season, it is better not to subject the public to more than one election every four years.

The other recommendation from the charter review commission was that the county should consider moving from a legislative form of government to one where all voters in the county elect a county executive along with county legislators. The commission gave persuasive evidence to suggest that a similar move in Ulster County saved money for taxpayers and brought other benefits. For the change to occur, the question would have to be put to a voter referendum. The legislators could easily make that happen with a simple vote. Sadly, two years on, it appears the legislature has decided to let the matter sink quietly into county history.

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