Last week, I watched with great interest Jim Heaney’s “investigative report” on WGRZ-TV regarding the uselessness of the Erie County Legislature. In case you missed it, Erie County’s lawmakers only passed one law last year. Other than that, taxpayers received nothing for the over $3 million dollars spent on the legislature and its operations.
That would be a terrible waste of money if that's the only reason we elect a legislature. It's not.
Of course, Heaney’s report assumes exactly that: passing laws is the legislature's only reason to live. In fact, lawmaking is probably the least important function of the legislature. Far more importantly, the body passes a budget annually and investigates and approves contracts throughout the year while serving as a check and balance to the County Executive.
I applaud the Erie County Legislature for only passing one law last year. Every time the legislature, or any other body, passes a law, it serves to restrict citizens' rights. I do not encourage the lawmakers to restrict my rights just to avoid the glare of Heaney’s cameras.
When the legislature does act, the results are not always good. Tim Kennedy’s apprenticeship law for public projects in Erie County raised the cost of construction projects to taxpayers, which then landed in the pockets of the unions. Betty Jean Grant’s anti-fracking law did absolutely nothing to protect county from being fracked, but it did allow her to pretend that she was doing something so that she could run against Kennedy for State Senate. (It should be noted that Grant also supported Kennedy’s expensive apprenticeship law.)
Other laws passed by the legislature tend not to have the full force and effect desired. Kennedy’s anti-texting law and Ed Rath's and Ray Walters’ anti-cyberbullying laws were both good ideas. However, they really only obligated Erie County Sheriff to enforce them, giving local police forces only the option to act. Such laws create inconsistency and confusion. These laws have since been pre-empted by New York State legislation and are much stronger because of it.
That is not to say that they should never pass laws. The pesticide notification law passed several years ago didn’t prevent pesticides from being applied to lawns, but it did require notice to neighbors so that they could take appropriate actions to minimize exposure to noxious chemicals. More information is a good thing.
Which leads me back to why Heaney’s article failed. The author did not stress the millions saved by the legislature on an annual basis by blocking tax increases proposed by former County Executive Chris Collins in his first year in office or current County Executive Mark Poloncarz in his first year in office. Poloncarz even acknowledged the legislature’s unwillingness to pass a tax increase as the reason why he did not propose an increase for this year. Heaney also ignored the legislature’s importance in calling out the administration when it attempted to add patronage hires. Granted, the legislature did approve many of those over the past two years, but what should you expect from the former Democrat majority working with a Democrat County Executive?
Is the Erie County Legislature expensive? Yes. Should it spend less? Absolutely. Reading the news today, it seems that it could save a lot of money by eliminating the rest of the district offices to which some legislators still cling, using less toner by printing less propaganda and by eliminating snacks. Why are taxpayers footing the bill for legislators’ snacks? They make plenty for a part-time position. They can buy their own snacks. And while they are at it, they could lead by example and cut their own salaries.
That said, Mr. Heaney’s report did cause me to wonder how the county could save money by eliminating, or at least restructuring, a branch of government. The county could save significant amounts of money and reduce political decisions by switching to a county manager form of government. By eliminating the County Executive’s office and the related patronage positions sprinkled throughout the Rath building, taxpayers could save as much as if the legislature was eliminated. Further, the administrative functions of government would be run by an experienced professional, not the winner of a popularity contest.
The County Manager would be evaluated on results and merit. We would not find ourselves in the position, like we were with Collins, where we threw out out a County Executive who increased the Charter mandated fund balance to legally acceptable levels during a recession - without a tax increase - because he was “arrogant.” Further, there would less need for political patronage.
And there’s the rub. Although Erie County is an overwhelmingly Democrat county, there have been both Democrats and Republicans elected to the office. There was also Joel Giambra, which neither party wants to claim. It is hard for an elected official dependent on the political machinery to eliminate patronage, knowing those same people are the foot soldiers who get them elected.
The County Manager form of government is a step away from politics and toward professionalism and responsibility. It is an idea at least worthy of discussion. Perhaps it is even worthy of a Channel 2 investigative report. I’ll tune in to watch that - but I'm not holding my breath.
Comments? Please email me at email@example.com. I occasionally comment via Twitter @PRLivingston.