Thoughts on the proposed county government changes

Posted: June 28, 2012 in Government
Tags: ,

Current weighted voting system
(click to enlarge)

The process to change the “weighted vote” system of  government that we’ve had in Montgomery County for some time now is finally moving forward . There’s been a series of initial public hearings recently (reported on here and here). The biggest opposition seems to be in regards to the county executive. Originally, the plan was to have eight legislative districts, and the executive office was proposed to have tie-breaker voting power as well as veto power.  After last night’s Charter Commission meeting, the plan was modified to create nine legislative districts in the county, removing the tie-breaking power for the executive, but leaving veto power in.

To me, the argument for the executive position seems fairly straightforward. Currently, county supervisors essentially act as executives for their areas of oversight. However, the stipend they are paid is less than a part-time job, which makes it necessary for most to work day jobs. The executive position would be a full-time position and would provide direction for county operations on a day-to-day basis. The idea of having a legislature that creates laws separate from an executive that carries them out while providing for checks and balances between the two, is the model of government our country was built on. This system is no different then what we currently have for our cities, towns, states and federal government. It’s hard for me to understand why anyone would think this system would be problematic for the county, but not for any other situation.

The current system of weighted voting is what flies in the face of what most people understand to be a fair representation. If I had a special interest and wanted to influence the vote on a certain issue, it would be much easier to spend my time lobbying the few highly weighted supervisors, rather than having to lobby them all.

The one area that concerns me is how the districts will be drawn. At first, the plan was for three of the eight districts to be completely within city borders. The revised plan with nine districts is to include areas of surrounding towns in these districts.

I’ve always maintained that the City of Amsterdam has specific needs and interests that are unique to the area.  In certain cases where the city is affected by county government actions, it’s important to me that the city’s interests are well-represented. I would venture to make the same argument for the towns as well. I’m not so sure it’s the best idea to draw districts that encompass areas with divergent interests. I think it may dilute the people’s ability to lobby for certain issues that pertain to where they live.

I take heart however because the county executive, who I assume is going to be elected by a county-wide election, is certainly going to have to pay particular attention to city issues in order to get elected. That’s because the city has roughly 37% of the county’s population and will most likely account for a similar percentage of a popular vote.

I think the proposed changes to the county government system are sensible and hopefully we will be able to vote on enacting them this November.

  1. Rob Millan says:

    One thing I strongly urge any government to have is a term limit. It’s by far the most effective way to run a government of any size, and not having one may prevent new people with new ideas from ever acting representative to the people. It prevents the same cast that had their fair share in preventing any progression from ever getting the boot. This is a major disenfranchise and holds no accountability to the representatives who have no incentive to work as effective legislators knowing they won’t be kicked out.

    As I understand the proposal, the ‘legislators’ will hold office for three years and be ‘term-limited’ to four terms (12 years).

    Except it doesn’t stop there…

    After those 12 years, a ‘legislator’ can take the equivalent of one term off (three years) and then be allowed to run again.

    So where exactly is this limit? And what’s preventing an actual limit from being implemented? Does anyone else take issue with this?

    On the point of 9 districts, IMHO, a good move if you ask me.

    On the point of an elected executive: bad. I can already see yet another familiar face running for office, winning only on his name, while touting an embellished track record (for examples, just look at the current BOS). I say make it an appointed position, ideally someone from outside the county with no ties, possess a JD or MBA as a minimum requirement, at $150k minimum. Then watch the results.

    Can Montgomery County do anything right? Can or will it ever learn lessons from other county governments?

    • Tim Becker says:

      I agree, I haven’t seen much attention paid to the term limits yet and they are important. Limits can cut both ways though – if they are too restrictive, you run the risk of pushing an effective legislator out. The shorter the term, the less continuity you have. My opinion, based your info – cut the number of terms to 3, extend the “timeout” terms to 2.

      If the executive position did not have veto power (ie like a “County Manager”), then I would be OK with it being appointed. However, that would keep decision making solely in the legislators hands. If the position has veto power, then it’s a branch of government therefore would have to be elected. I think it would useful to have an essentially “at large” county representative.

  2. Once upon a time I was a fan of term limits, but not any longer.

    We already have a term limit system. It’s called the ballot box. If you don’t like somebody, and enough other people don’t like that person, eject him through the election process. Ejection through term limits is a cop-out. It’s like saying to the people, “Your not smart enough to vote somebody out of office, so we’ll get rid of everyone after two or three terms,” even if they were the best elected office holder ever.

    Not buying into it anymore.

    As for the executive, I’m still partial to a paid professional executive who is appointed, not elected. The council/city manager or legislature/county executive model ensures professional, knowledgeable leadership of the mechanism of government, not subject to the vagaries of new and untested executive office holders every four years.

    The current model (in municipalities) is resource wasteful. In my opinion, for what little bit it’s worth, going to an elected executive style is still putting your county one governmental evolution behind the current times. If you’re going to do this thing, you might as well do the most successful version.

    • Rob Millan says:

      That may be true, but that leaves little incentive for the elected official to get the job done within the allotted time versus relaxing while doing little or nothing knowing s/he can stay there as long as s/he wants so long as no one else runs for that office. It makes for a pretty comfortable position.
      Perhaps I’d be more agreeable to the ‘keep them in as long as they want it because they are the best elected office holder ever’ argument if in fact some of the people (and I do mean *some*) were actually effective in their capacities and had good and un-embellished track records. That hardly seems the case with some of the current members.
      Just my thought though.

      • Rob,

        (Just discussing here, not being argumentative) I still insist that term limits won’t solve this problem. In fact, I think a case can be made that the increased turn-over that would result from term limits will exacerbate the problems you mention.

        From personal experience, I can tell you that it takes at least two years (for the few elected officials that apply themselves) to fully grasp their jobs. There’s a precious lot to learn, and most of the courses for doing that learning aren’t available to a person until after they are elected (which, I know, seems backwards, but that’s the way it is).

        Most elected officials don’t even bother to get training. They muddle through one day into the next surviving on bombast, joining a voting bloc around another legislator they generally agree with, or by being the least objectionable person in the room. It’s not that they are unwilling to work with their fellow politicians. Mostly, it’s that they don’t know how, and they’re not interested in taking their personal time to make the effort.

        So, when four years have passed, your ‘good’ politician is left having not fulfilled his or her goals not out of incompetence, sloth, or lack of political savvy; but because there simply hasn’t been the ability to forge consensus with the clueless.

        How ‘throwing the bums out’ is supposed to improve matters is a mystery to me. On average, any political body has between 1/4 and 1/3 of it membership that cares enough to learn how the job is supposed to be performed. Less than that actually delve far enough into the education to become fluent enough to improve things. Such a portion of the political body is usually too small to effect coordinated change on its own, leaving many efforts dead on arrival due to political differences and personality rivalries.

        Then, 4, 8 or 12 years later, the term limit mentality says that all of that hard work is irrelevant. Your time is up, you’re kicked to the curb, and a new green crew will now have to begin the long, slow and complex training process, laboring under the same handicaps.

        To me, this would seem to be grossly inefficient.

        Another aspect of concern is that our communities are relatively small. Our populations contain just so many people who are even interested in running for political office, much less intellectually qualified to do so. Now we’re going to chew through that tiny portion of the populace at a prodigious rate. I suspect this will actually increase party significance as it will only be the parties that have sufficient resources to find candidates in such a fast-replacement political arrangement.

        My opinion is that this will actually only lead to politician recycling. You’ll think you’re escaping bad politicians by kicking them out after some periodicity, but in fact you’ll just see that person go from city council to the board of supervisors, for example.

        What it will not do is ensure good strong candidates are left in place to make a difference. The good ones will be victims just as the bad ones are, and my observation over the last ten years is that the good ones are often less politically connected and the last to be supported by the party apparatchik. Thus candidate recycling will progressively include the less gifted but politically connected.

        We need that like we need a hole in the head.

        A better idea, still fraught with difficulty, is for a group of knowledgeable people representing each ward/district to work on their own consensus model for improvement within their political subdivision (city, county, etc), and then run for office with the goal of working united to implement that change. The problem? Who has the kind of time to coordinate such an effort? It makes me weary just thinking about it.

  3. robert purtell says:

    I have hesitated to reply until I gave this some thought. My thoughts are that I am glad to see a new system in the works, I must say that I did not put any effort into going to the meetings and really don’t have any room to complain for that reason.
    With that said, I am sure there will be some situations or issues that will have to be adjusted or accepted along the way.
    My feelings toward term limits is pretty simple, I don’t agree with them because your are limiting potential in return for control, if we, you, me want to exercise our right to input, then we have the right to try to be elected ourselves. I feel strongly that there are two sides to the coin, desiring someone not to get to much control vs someone that becomes good at getting things done and the value for their learning, experience and relationships over time.
    Erastus Corning was very good at providing services, maintaining the city of Albany and was reelected for many years. Yes there were some that did not play ball and did not benifit, but he got things done and did things in a timely manner.
    In closing I will say that my experience is that most elected officials don’t reach the tenure of 12 years around here unless they are good at what they do.

  4. diane says:

    If I am not mistaken the county has had an appointed position before and I “was told” it was a disaster. Therefore unless there is an understanding with the elected officials that they cannot control everything this person does, (he does not hire so and so’s cousin) can it really work as an appointed position? or an elected position for that matter ? Look at the recent falling out from an appointment of a new chair of the DSS? The gentleman was more than qualified, but how many toes did he step on to create such an uproar? Just saying 🙂

  5. diane says:

    Great comments Lance. You are right, the way to do it would be to get a group of concerned citizens to come up with an agenda and move forward as a group. 🙂

  6. Rob Millan says:

    A good read in today’s Recorder Kraebel column regarding the need for change supported by the empty acknowledgment all coupled by people unwilling to give up their power they’ve amassed.

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