Many county residents may not be aware that the County Charter – our constitution– requires that the County Legislature create a Charter Revision Commission every ten years to review and, if necessary, revise the Charter. The last time this citizen-led Commission was impaneled was in the wake of the Red/Green fiscal crisis that struck Erie County in 2005, amid public outcry for necessary change to avoid another such crisis. The Commission responded with new rules and policies reinforcing our system of checks and balances and paving the way for the ten years of governmental efficiency that have followed.
The new Commission was impaneled in January 2016. It has held twenty four meetings so far; however, essentially no members of the public or media have attended these meetings. For several months the Commission has publicly deliberated minor amendments submitted by my administration and by other County elected officials. Additionally, proposals of all kinds to change governmental functions and relationships in big and small ways are on the table, and all residents should be aware of what changes the Commission is considering.
Some of the proposals being made are disconcerting and seem to be solutions for problems that Erie County does not have. At a time when unemployment is down to around 5%, our county budgets have passed on time and with surpluses for the past four years, and our county population is actually rising, many would say that the reforms passed ten years ago are working well and that county government is too. However, without public input, proposals are being considered by the commission and its Chairman to reverse reforms passed in 2006 designed to promote responsible County government. These proposals would obliterate our system of checks and balances.
For example, the amendments propose creating a new “regional council” – a new layer of government – that would include each of the town supervisors and city mayors. This new government would have a paid staff and would possess the power to compel local governments to pay “dues” to participate, as well as force the Legislature to act on its recommendations.
Furthermore, federal law requires a “one person, one vote” standard based on population, but with this proposal voting power among regional council members would be weighted based on registered voters, not people, thereby stripping power from communities with less voters. This proposal takes us back to the time of the old board of supervisors and would inevitably lead to conflict between large and small communities, cities and suburbs.
These proposals would also extend county legislators’ terms from two years to four, yet weaken the executive branch by turning over control of the County’s Budget and Attorney’s Offices to the Legislature. They also would eliminate the Citizens’ Budget Review Commission. If adopted, these amendments would consolidate the power to manage a $1.7 billion government in a Legislature that meets only once a week.
It is surprising to see such a blatant disregard for our system of checks and balances at a time when county government is working well. County residents deserve better.