Poo-pooing the county manager idea
by Walter Lewis
A revealing drama is unfolding in the chambers of the Historic County Building at the meetings of the Charter Review Commission.
In the November 2006 general election the unsuspecting county electorate authorized a continuing charter commission to improve its “ability to deal with complex issues that require in-depth analysis and lengthy discussion.” Ostensibly this ongoing commission was supposed to be able to handle the “complex issue” that arose in the 2006 commission to allow the voters to determine whether the county should approve a county manager form of government.
The concept, strongly supported by community members, was dormant at the commission until its February 2008 meeting or more than 15 months after the election. At that meeting Commissioner Walter Briant suggested that the commission consider the subject and as apparently he was the only commission member interested, he was authorized to be a one-person committee to make a report and proposal to the commission for amendments that would provide the terms for a county manager system of governance for the county. At the April 28, 2008 meeting Mr. Briant presented his report which included a statement as to the benefits the county should obtain from a county manager system, a summary of the amendments to the charter that would be needed, and the text of such amendments. At the May 19, 2008 meeting Mr. Briant sought to have the report accepted and considered as a proposed amendment, but the chair ruled he could not. At the June 23, 2008 meeting the position of county officials on the proposal was made clearer. Using the shopworn technique all politicians have learned, both the administration and two council members testified saying that the measure was of interest but required much more study and review. In other words the commission was being told that it should take no action to meaningfully progress the proposal. The commission listened and it obeyed. A special meeting of the commission was held on July 8, 2008 at which there was an outpouring from citizens supporting the proposal, but its approval did not occur.
The commission having essentially discarded the popular county manager measure, let us turn to the commission’s consideration of matters of interest to county officials. In January a commissioner, in a manner of one fulfilling orders, offered two proposals to eliminate charter provisions of concern to the county establishment.
The first of these was to repeal the Charter Section 3.07 E portion that required County Council meetings to be open to the public unless related to consultation with the County Attorney on claims. It was stated that this section presented a conflict between the State Sunshine Law and the Charter. In fact, it does not as the Sunshine Law specifically contemplates that counties may enact provisions intended to be more stringent on secret meetings than the Sunshine Law itemization. The commission was so impetuous it adopted a motion to amend Section 3.07 E without any reference to the need for submission of the matter to the voters.
The second was to limit the portion of the provision of Section 20.02 D of the Charter that prohibits county officers from representing private interests before county boards, commissions and agencies by excluding “volunteer” commission and board members. It was stated that the existing provision seriously dilutes the pool of talent willing to serve on county boards and commissions. Since the change essentially affects only lawyers, the “serious” dilution is most questionable.
Neither of the two proposals is of any practical importance. The County Council has been stonewalling the application of 3.07 E and holding executive sessions in disregard of it. Section 20.02 D has existed in the charter for 40 years and board and commission memberships are full. Furthermore the sitting County Board of Ethics has read the provision out of the Charter by refusing to apply it.
The difference in how proposals are being handled by the commission reflects very clearly its inherent character. With the exception of Commissioner Briant, the commission members do not seem to perceive their function as serving the public; it is instead to preserve the comfort level of our county officials.
The disregard of citizens posture is made more intriguing by recent efforts of two council members on proposals for charter amendments. One member urged the commission to increase the term of council members from two to four years and to change the eight year limit on service in the council to 12 years. The other member departed from historic practice and chose to make an end run around the commission by submitting proposals for council consideration concerning substantial increases in the vote requirements to enact charter amendments, disclosure of interests and financial procedures. None of these proposals aid people’s rights.
The proposal warmly supported by our residents for replacing our present mayoral system with one having a county manager is most unlikely to be up for vote in November and instead we will see measures intended to give security or benefit to our county officials.
We should look beyond the specific items that will be on the ballot and should consider how the public has been shortchanged by a process under which our county officials are seeking to undermine voter ability to determine how they wish to be governed. Citizens should take a critical look at the commission’s proposals to change Charter Sections 3.07 E and 20.02 D and the council member proposals, and send a message by their votes that the people of our county want a better government, and that county officials should cease engaging in efforts to block citizens’ knowledge about government operations and to diminish citizens’ rights, and instead to assist the people in their efforts for improvements in their government.
• Walter Lewis is a resident of Princeville and writes a bi-weekly column for The Garden Island.