County needs to rethink hybrid government format
Imagine trying to run a business in which the company’s top executives are all independently elected officials, answerable not to the company’s CEO or board of directors, but to the local electorate, and whose only performance review is conducted once every four years by public referendum.
That’s the case in Summit County, where five elected council members enact policies to be carried out by seven elected department heads. It can, at times, be an awkward balancing act. As one council member mentioned at Monday night’s candidate forum, the council does not have authority over the other elected offices.
It is to the current county department heads’ credit that the system has worked as well as it has. Most take their responsibilities to heart and work diligently for their constituents. But the system has some serious flaws.
Partisan elections are not the best way to hire most of the county’s currently elected professional posts. Most voters, for instance, are not versed in the qualifications and certifications that professional recruiters would look for in hiring a treasurer, assessor, clerk, recorder or auditor. Instead, voters are more likely to make decisions based on personality, party platforms and popularity.
While it might have made sense to elect department heads when the county was smaller and run by a three-member commission, it is now a sophisticated operation commanding a $50 million annual budget. The old three-member commission has been replaced with a five-member council and a professional manager but the last vestige of the old format, in which department heads are selected by a popular vote, is still in place.
Those positions currently pay in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year, and, this year, three of those who are elected (the assessor, recorder and treasurer) will serve six-year terms. The others (clerk, auditor, attorney and sheriff) will serve four years before coming up for re-election.
We would argue that as soon as the winners of this election are safely ensconced in their new offices, the county should undertake an effort to complete the transition to a true council/manager form of government by making five of the seven department head posts appointed, not elected, positions. Hopefully some of the candidates who just went through the grueling election process will agree that four years from now, when their terms end, they’d prefer to be rehired based on their performance rather than have their job security up for grabs in a politically charged election.
There is no advantage to selecting either a clerk, auditor, treasurer, recorder or assessor by a vote of the people. These are not political assignments calling for ideological decisions.
Please note, we have set aside the sheriff and attorney’s posts, for which the argument in favor of independent elections makes sense. In addition to serving the council, the county attorney and the sheriff have a duty to be watchdogs for abuses of power or illegal activity, even on the part of the government, and therefore need the autonomy earned through an independent election.
Making further changes to the current form of county government won’t be easy. The shift from a commission to a council was controversial, but now, five years later, both elected officials and citizens agree the change was positive. It’s time to complete the transition.
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