Needed Reform: County Manager Should Serve as “At Will” Employee Once Again

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News from

County Legislator

Alan Sorensen

January, 2013

County Manager Should Serve “At Will”

The revision to County Charter to again allow “at will” County Manager 

is the beginning of changing the course of county government

By Alan Sorensen

Right now, all nine legislators are facing some difficult decisions in terms of how to set a new course for County Government that envisions fiscal responsibility, ethical conduct, and smaller, leaner government. 

 

The six new members of this group now have a year of experience under their belt.  And important changes are being sought now by most of them to address the significant problems that arose from prior administrations and to build better county government for the future.

 

One of these changes is to address an imbalance of power which allows the County Manager to basically run county government as he or she may deem fit, including making unilateral policy decisions, with only cursory oversight from the County Legislature.  

 
This imbalance of power has resulted in part from the county legislature’s inability to hire and fire a county manager by a 5-4 majority vote.

Right now, it takes a 6-3 vote.

To make matters worse, the way the present County Manager’s contract is written, it’s almost impossible to fire him.

 To change a ridiculous law that prevents the County Legislature from making important changes, like hiring and firing a county manager, a new local law, one that is receiving bipartisan support, has been proposed to amend the County Charter to remove this two-thirds majority requirement to appoint, suspend or remove the County Manager.  This matter will be taken up by the Legislature at the Full Board meeting on January 24, 2013 at 2:00 PM.

When the Sullivan County Charter was created in 1996, it was intended for the County Manager to serve “at the will” of a majority of the Legislature.

This meant he had to always answer to the entire County Legislature and serve at their pleasure.  It’s a common practice throughout New York State and the nation.

At-will employment is a doctrine of American Law that defines an employment relationship in which either party can immediately terminate the relationship at any time with or without any advance warning and the employer is free to discharge individuals “for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all,” and the employee is equally free to quit, strike, or otherwise cease work.

In 2007, revisions were made to the County Charter and Administrative Code, which has resulted in a situation where a County Manager is able to serve for life – even if a majority of the Legislature wants to move in another direction.

A Local Law was passed changing the Sullivan County Charter:  “A two-thirds majority of the whole membership of the County Legislature shall be required to appoint, suspend or remove the County Manager.”

This change shifted great power over to the County Manager position and has caused big problems since then-in particular, the County Manager has had to only answer to three of nine legislators and communicate to them alone important information about how policy is being created and driven.

He or she has had basically Carte Blanche in working with those three alone to conduct county business.

Different theories as to why the revision was made abound, but the reasons why are immaterial.  This seemingly insignificant revision has not only changed the original intent of the Charter it has also undermined the authority of the elected County Legislature.

Bottom line: If the majority of County Legislators are unhappy with a County Manager, then they should be able to give him or her notice and look for a new one-like any other “at will” employee.

The 2007 Charter revisions also moved the budget due date from October 1st to November 15th, which has proven to leave insufficient time to review the Tentative Budget or to reach consensus on meaningful revisions to the Tentative Budget.

The new proposed Local Law will also restore the long-standing requirement that the Tentative County Budget be delivered by the County Manager to the Legislature no later than October 1st.   I have long advocated for this change.

There are many issues facing the County, but I feel these Charter revisions are necessary to restore the legislative intent of the Charter and empower elected officials, not bureaucrats, to govern.

Critics are charging such a change at this point is being made solely to allow the County Legislature to make an immediate change in the County Manager’s office.

That’s not the case.

The introduction of the new law is the beginning of changing the course of county government to be more fiscally responsible, to allow better governance, and to reorganize county offices and responsibilities for better efficiency, less waste, and most importantly, to bring government spending and property taxes under control.

It’s the start of a new beginning in Sullivan County government and I urge you to support the change.

Alan Sorensen

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