Wednesday, September 16, 2009
A Lesson from the Private Sector: County Officers Based on Qualifications, Not Popularity?
This article is in response to Briefs’ Article below, and after the past couple of weeks, I hope it is finally something all of us conservatives can agree upon. Particularly, I am curious what the true fiscals who read this site regularly think about this issue, because I am not sure I understand their position, and I am not sure whether it even falls along any clearly delineated line. On one hand, conservative purists share a populist or grassroots perspective when it comes to elected offices, while efficiency and accountability are their highest priorities. I would like to get a constructive discussion going on how we should work together to address the below problem.
The issue below, I believe, has a very systemic, tripartite cause. The “three-legged stool” of county government, the auditor, assessor, and treasurer, are directly elected by the residents of the county under current law. While voters’ political will should not be questioned, we must first look at the duties of these offices, and whether it is appropriate to continue to elect officials to do the job, or whether some other model would be more appropriate to achieve the desired purpose.
The first aspect of the cause is a lack of qualifications of county officeholders. Under any other government model, be it state, federal, or city government, these offices would be considered executive in nature. They have concrete objectives to accomplish, and require a fairly specialized skill. With some exception, executive offices are generally appointed by the chief executive, e.g. the President, Governor, etc. This makes sense, because a single executive can evaluate the skills and experiences of potential officeholders. These appointing executives also have a strong interest to appoint qualified persons, because poor performance reflects directly on the executive himself. The local electorate, on the other hand, while worth consideration, has a completely different set of priorities in choosing these officeholders. As political scientists, we can argue about what those priorities are and whether they include qualifications and to what degree. I think, however, that we can all agree that by direct election the qualifications of each officeholder are at least placed on the back burner, so to speak, when deciding who these officials are going to be.
The second cause is an overlap of duties and responsibilities between the three offices. Many of the employees within each office perform similar, if not identical, duties. This is especially true between the assessor’s and auditor’s offices. Not only are they interdependent, many of the tasks assigned to each are also assigned to the other. An example of this redundancy is in the monthly reports required by the State Constitution. Each office has to spend valuable time issuing a detailed report, delivered monthly, to each other office in county government. I have read many of them, and I will say that creating these reports is an exercise in futility. They contain almost identical information, and are repetitive from one month to the next. I believe this is just one indicator that we need a single executive office in county government.
The third, and related, problem is a lack of accountability. It flows from my second critique, in that having several offices allows the blurring of accountability when things go awry. We have seen this demonstrated in the local papers. When the auditor is accused of failing to do his job, he then first blames the other county offices, and then blames state government. Throw partisan politics into the mess, and this swift shell game makes following the flow chart of county government accountability nearly impossible. This is compounded further by a similar accountability problem in the level of government charged with the supervision of these offices, namely the “three-headed dragon”, or the board of county commissioners, and no common person has a prayer of knowing who’s on first.
The answer, in my opinion, begins with Indiana House Resolution 0003 (2008-09) and its Senate counterpart, SJR 0005 (2008-09). By referendum, these resolutions allow for the consolidation of these county offices into a single office, and replace election with appointment by a single county executive. This dramatically cuts the number of “chiefs” as well as “Indians” at the county level, and I believe it would lead to a dramatic overhaul in the way things are done. The problem, as I see it, however, is that the possibilities are extremely open-ended and ambiguous. Referendums work best when they are simple, yes or no questions. What the legislature is proposing is much more complicated, and I believe too great a burden for the individual voter to comprehend and properly decide upon. It also leaves too much ambiguity for partisan politics to enter in and distort the facts. That being said, what do you think NWI?
Posted by Christopher Buckley