A number of high-end elected county officials were in Lincoln recently, putting on a full court press in support of a piece of legislation numbered LR2CA. If passed, the issue would ask the voters to decide whether counties should be allowed to implement a county manager form of government.
Voters would have to approve the new form of government before it could be implemented.
Under the new system, the county board of commissioners would hire a county manager, and work together to appoint people to manage all county offices. Direct election of those officials – the county clerk, county attorney, assessor, sheriff and the like – by the public would be eliminated.
The Government, Military and Veteran Affairs Committee needed five votes to advance the bill, but could only get four. However, the committee didn’t kill the bill outright. This means it could be reconsidered next year.
State Senator John Harms, who introduced LR2CA, wrote to Scotts Bluff County Commission Chairman Mark Masterton that “New ideas and approaches are sometimes difficult in the political arena.” He added that proponents could work on a strategy to persuade the “no” votes to change their minds prior to the next legislative session.
The bill is barely two pages long, but as the old idiom says, the devil is in the details. While LR2CA allows for county officials to be appointed, the question is “Appointed by whom?”
Part of Masterton’s written testimony forwarded to the legislative committee said that currently, “Elected officials can hire whomever they want, and at times can hire good friends or relatives without regard to qualifications.”
That’s true, but unless there are specific qualifications for holding a particular office, such as the county assessor or county attorney, most positions are open to whoever wants to run.
Would that be different with a county manager form of government? An argument could be made that it would only shift hiring decisions to the county board, who would hire who they want.
Another portion of Masterton’s testimony envisioned a worst-case scenario where an official is elected, sworn in and doesn’t come to work for the next four years. He claimed there are instances where elected officials have taken additional full-time jobs, leaving the county’s work to their chief deputies. This begs the question, “Which ones? Name them.”
There’s already a remedy in place for those kinds of shenanigans by elected officials – recall. The cynical among us would say recall doesn’t work when only 17 percent of registered voters bother to vote. Maybe so, but that’s the nature of democracy.
This isn’t the first time the idea has come up. Back in 1994, a county manager form of government bill was introduced by then state senator Joyce Hillman, now on the Gering City Council.
Proponents from 1994, including the area’s largest newspaper, said it was needed because county commissioners can’t tell elected officials how to spend their money or deny them the money they need to run their offices. In effect, they said it allowed elected officials to abuse the system.
Proponents also said the bill would save taxpayer money. Haven’t we heard this before? Like with the recent police merger proposal?
Any taxpayer who’s told that whatever policy will save money should immediately respond, “Show me the money.”
Would a county manager form of government be a good thing? Maybe. Or maybe not. We’ll let the people decide. But voters should think hard before giving away their right to elect the officials who will serve them. They should also be leery of elected officials who say they know better than the voters on how to run government. We already have too many of those.