Sunday, October 14, 2012

County Needs Elected Chief Executive

The most important lesson from the squabble between Lee Terry and John Ewing over Ewing's budgets and spending as Douglas County Treasurer is that we need to eliminate the elected bureaucratic positions and have an elected chief executive for county government.

I served on the Douglas County Board and I have a hard time sorting out the budget process.

Ewing is justifiably frustrated with Terry because salaries for the treasurers' employees ultimately are determined by the board, not the treasurer. Those salaries may end up higher than what the treasurer budgeted because the board might have negotiated with a savvy employees' union that knew how to use the Commission of Industrial Relations, a state panel that resolves public sector labor disputes, to its advantage to wring higher pay from the board.

That's how you end up with the bizarre situation of the treasurer saying the board made me spend more than I wanted to spend.

It's usually the reverse, with the treasurer or assessor saying I need more money than the board will approve to adequately run my department and serve the taxpayers. One year, the elected bureaucrats collectively sued the county board for not appropriating enough money for their departments. The case ended in a settlement that did not really resolve the question of who are the true fiscal bosses of the county, the elected commissioners on the board or the elected heads of the departments of county government.

Meanwhile the system leaves a huge amount of power in the hands of an unelected bureaucrat, the county's chief administrative officer. Officially the CAO works for the board. Realistically a fulltime and assertive CAO is much like a superintendent of school system -- able to manage the agenda and the course of public policy.

This is not a knock on anyone in the system. It's a knock on the system itself.

Why do we do it this way? It goes back to Nebraska's populist political heritage. The rationale is that the people are best served by making the county attorney or clerk or register of deeds directly accountable to voters.

Nice idea. No longer workable, if it ever was. Eliminate the elected bureaucrats and the CAO and establish an elected county mayor. Reduce the salaries of bureaucratic department heads and make them answerable to the county mayor. Better yet, merge the city and county and have a mayor of a municipal county.

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