Friday, September 09, 2005

Clarifying How County Council Runs Everything

The battle of Summit County continues. A political pie fight is always a great entertainment; unless it's this one. The problem is the legal technicality of the wrangling. Anyone want to read a post about attorney-client privilege and the public records law? I thought not.

The latest salvo has the same problem. County Council has put a charter amendment on the November ballot. Today's BJ editorial gropes around for what it all means. I can take a stab at breaking all this down, but I have to inflict legal minutiae upon you. I will endeavor to be entertaining at the same time, but consider yourself warned.

According to the papers, the preamble of the ballot issue reads "Shall the County Charter be amended to clarify the respective powers and duties of County Council and the County Executive in county government?” The actual proposed changes are:

The proposed amendment would change the "Powers and Duties of County Council" to

  • add a provision that Council has "policy making" power as well as legislative power.
  • delete a provision stating that Council's power is exercised "by ordinance or resolution."
  • The amendment would add to the "Powers and Duties of the County Executive" the proviso that the Executive is “responsibility for the day-to-day running of the departments, offices and agencies of county government under his or her jurisdiction or control.”

    Not included are earlier proposals to strip the Executive of veto power and the ability to propose legislation.

    Now here's a problem for anyone trying to analyze this; the Summit County Charter posted on Council's website is predominantely offline. Only a few (nonrelevant) sections are up. I will try to get hold of an actual copy or hector the webmaster to fix the thing and give some further analysis. In the meantime, a couple of observations.

    First, the additions don't really add anything in that they pretty much track the state statutes that authorize forming a charter-style county government. So in one respect, they don't clarify anything. It's kind of like a doctor charting that your body is made up of cells. Well yea doc, thanks for the info, but why does it hurt when I pee? Just reiterating what's in the authorizing statutes doesn't clarify whatever is currently unclear.

    On the other hand, based on what the amendments emphasize and on the accompanying rhetoric, McCarthy has a legitimate fear that Council is trying to geld the office. The key concept is "policy making." This is a clunkily vague term without any traditional legal significance, but for some reason it appears in the state statutes. Council is indeed the "policy making" body.

    But an executive with any real power is necessarily a policy maker too. What law types really talk about when we talk about executive power is "rule making" and "discretion." "Rule making" is what executive agencies do to regulate something after being granted that power by statute. "Discretion" is the ability of an executive to decide how to go about the job, including adopting informal procedures.

    The County Executive is short on rule making but long on discretion. The policy maker language seems an attempt to cabin the Executive's discretion. It sounds from comments like Council doesn't want an Executive so much as an administrator. But an elected administrator makes no sense. If the person in that position doesn't decide how to do his job, he needs to be answerable to someone -- in a more immediate sense than facing the voters every four years. In non-charter counties, the administrator serves at the direction and at the pleasure of the Board of Commissioners. Summit opted for an elected executive, not a mere functionary.

    So . . .

  • It's hard to understand how parroting statutory language will clarify whatever murk currently obscures the roles of Council and the Executive.

  • It looks for all the world like Council wants to move to a weak executive with limited discretion

  • A weak elected Executive isn't likely to produce an effective government.

    If you got though all that, be proud. Let's all hope for a real dust-up at the next meeting so we have something fun to talk about.


    Anonymous said...

    Well that is an interesting use of "clarify" then isn't it? Are the R's taking over council and trying to negate the Exec.?

    Pho said...

    It's not the Republicans. Paul Gallagher -- the Councilman who drafted the amendment -- is a D. D's pretty much dominate Council. This is a power struggle based apparently on personality clash as much as anything.

    As I have mentioned before, I know and like a number of the Democratic Council members, so I lean toward believing that it's McCarthy who is acting out of pocket. Problem is, we don't want to bolix the entire system of government for all time because we don't like this guy right now.