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December 02, 2016
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How to fix county government?

The frayed relationship between Sullivan County Manager David Fanslau and the majority of county legislators has been on display in public in recent weeks, as press conferences and news reports made clear that a majority of legislators are working to terminate his employment.

Swept along with the dissatisfaction of some legislators with their manager has also come a proposal from Legislator Jonathan Rouis to switch to a different form of county management. We at The River Reporter wonder if changing the form of county government from a legislature that appoints a county manager to one having an elected county executive is really necessary, or if the current unhappiness in the government center is just a matter of personalities and power. If the latter, we recommend that when the heat of the moment subsides, cooler consideration should be given before institutionalizing a new political office in the courthouse.

It’s not surprising that the legislature sees the need for change. In the past 25 years, all county governments in New York State (NYS) have faced increasingly complex operations, and there’s been a strong trend toward counties exploring different ways of doing things. This includes both investigating new management alternatives and other changes in operations. During these economically challenging times, counties with fewer and fewer resources are still being pressured to deliver the same (or even increased) services.

Currently 31 NYS counties have a manager or an administrator form of government. Seventeen have elected county executives, with Montgomery County set to become the 18th in 2014. In nine counties, the chairman of the county legislative body serves as administrator.

The ideal county manager is a highly-trained, experienced professional administrator who serves at the pleasure of elected leaders. All the power is concentrated in the elected council. When the manager and elected officials work in partnership and where legislative leadership is strong, a well-functioning county government can result. Legislative-administrative problems often develop when the flow of information is inadequate. Whether this is the case in Sullivan County, depends on whether one perceives the flow of information from Fanslau to the legislature as sufficient. Some legislators allege that Fanslau has failed to provide them requested information promptly and completely, something that is part of a manager’s job. At least one legislator says this not the case; he charges some of his colleagues are trying to micromanage county government. From the outside, it’s hard to tell if these are problems of personality, or a power struggle, or a result of the structure of our local government. Yet the tensions are clear.

There is, however, no guarantee that tensions like these would go away with a county executive form of government. A county executive is a different animal altogether from a county manager. He or she is elected by the voters and has significantly more autonomy than a county manager. He or she is also expected to be a leader in policy. Generally, a county executive has veto power over legislative acts (although the legislature can override it with a supermajority vote). Professional administrative experience is not required as it is for a county manager. Because the executive is elected, partisan politics enters the equation when this new, politically dominated branch of local government is established. A county legislature cannot fire a county executive; if they do not like the situation, they have to live with it.

It seems clear that just exchanging a county manager for a county executive is not automatically a cure for tensions between an administrator and the legislature. Whatever the structure of government, Sullivan County government faces many challenges ahead—getting government’s fiscal house in order, building a vibrant local economy, preserving the precious resources of clean water, air and the natural beauty we all love. Whether either form of government would be better able to achieve these goals may well be worth discussion.

[For some useful charts of the two different forms of county government, see page 47 of the New York State Department of State’s Local Government Handbook, available online at www.dos.ny.gov/lg/publications/Local_Government_Handbook.pdf.]