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October 22, 2014
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A new course for county government

By Alan Sorensen

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.

To change a ridiculous law that prevents the county legislature from making important changes, like hiring and firing a county manager, a new local law, which is receiving bipartisan support, is proposed to amend the county charter to remove this two-thirds majority requirement. Bottom line: if the majority of county legislators are unhappy with a county manager, then they should be able to give him or her notice and look for a new one—like any other “at will” employee. This matter will be taken up by the legislature at the full board meeting on January 24 at 2 p.m.

The 2007 charter revisions also moved the tentative budget due date from October 1 to November 15, which has left insufficient time to review the tentative budget, or to reach consensus on meaningful revisions to it. The proposed 2013 charter revisions also will restore the long-standing requirement for the county manager to submit the tentative county budget no later than October 1. I have long advocated for this change.

There are many issues facing the county, but I feel these charter revisions are necessary to restore the legislative intent of the charter and empower elected officials, not bureaucrats, to govern. Critics are charging such a change at this point is being made solely to allow the county legislature to make an immediate change in the county manager’s office. That’s not the case.

The introduction of the new law is the beginning of changing the course of county government to be more fiscally responsible, to allow better governance and to reorganize county offices and responsibilities for better efficiency, less waste and most importantly to bring government spending and property taxes under control.

It’s the start of a new beginning in Sullivan County government and I urge you to support the change.

[Alan Sorensen is a Sullivan County legislator.]