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April 21, 2014
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Sullivan’s charter amendment was warranted and proper

Ira J. Cohen

A recent Times Herald Record editorial declared that the ability of a “mere majority” of legislators to amend Sullivan County’s Charter was hasty, emotional and bad governance, and that only the public should have the power to amend the charter. It expressed concern that the amendment would deter qualified job applicants for the county manager position, and that it would further deter an appointee from acting boldly and with vision, due to perceived lack of job security. These views are not only contrary to the clear intention of Sullivan’s charter, but contrary to state law as well.

The original charter, approved by the public at a mandatory referendum in 1994, required that a manager be hired with six votes (a supermajority), but required only five votes, (a simple majority), to terminate without cause. The clear intention of the charter’s drafters was that the manager serve at the pleasure of the legislature, with no job security whatsoever. That provision never deterred scores of qualified applicants for the position, initially in 1996, in 2006 and again in 2013. Furthermore, the three managers who have served have all been professional, intelligent and bold.

A charter review board in 2006 made many good recommendations to amend the charter, but, unfortunately, some that were not so good, as well. One example of the latter was an amendment that expressed their desire to have the number to appoint and the number to terminate be consistent, so instead of recommending five and five, they recommended six and six. Consistency was the primary motivation, as opposed to a well-reasoned determination that a supermajority was somehow more democratic or would result in better governance. In fact, the experience that resulted in the termination of David Fanslau clearly demonstrates the major flaw in the belief that a supermajority is better. It enabled him to become entrenched in the position even though a majority of his bosses wanted to replace him. He was able to wield enormous amounts of power even though only four of nine legislators approved. Government by the will of the majority is so basic and fundamental in the United States, and has been since 1776, that it amazes me that anyone could argue that it is unfair, unwise or undemocratic, and that only a supermajority could assure those qualities.

As for amendments to the charter, both the charter itself and state law provide for amendments to be made by a majority. The state law clearly authorizes many, if not most amendments to a charter to be made by a majority of legislators. For some matters, however, specifically delineated, the law requires an additional step—approval by a majority of the public voting at a referendum. Some referendums are discretionary but some are mandatory, depending on the substance of the amendment. The editorial’s title contending that “Changing the charter should not be so easy” is erroneous both factually and philosophically. The current statutory scheme confirms the very essence of our representative form of government—we the people elect representatives to make policy decisions on our behalf. We imbue them with the power to make and to change laws. The fact that our state law carves out some exceptions requiring that certain specific matters be also approved by a majority of the public is both reasonable and more than adequate to assure a democratic process.

I have long advocated for an elected chief executive as opposed to an appointed one, but those counties, like Sullivan, that still have an appointed manager will function more effectively by permitting the age-old democratic principal of majority rule to flourish. This will empower and protect the will of the elected representative and therefore the will of the people.

[Ira J. Cohen is treasurer of Sullivan County, NY.]