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It is probable that the coming constitutional convention will abolish the surrogates' courts and turn over their work to the supreme court. I can think of no objection to the appointment of all other county officials by the supervisors, except that where a county is so large that the proper handling of its business demands a comptroller, care should be taken to preserve his independence either by election at large or in the manner of framing the government. A brief consideration of his duties will make that plain.
A comptroller is the chief bookkeeper of the county. He controls the accounts and audits the disbursements and receipts. He should make enough of an inspection of supplies delivered and work done to know that a fair return is received for money spent. He should present at frequent intervals statements that will show the real financial condition of the county; get out a budget that will inform the public how it is proposed to spend its money, and clearly show increases asked, and then struggle to hold departments down to their appropriations. Let us suppose counties to be governed by small boards of three members each with power to appoint all the executive officers. Will a comptroller appointed by such a board be vigorous in rejecting claims, pointing out waste or extravagance, calling attention to overdrawing of appropriations or otherwise criticizing departments? It is not to be expected that he will, because he will himself be a product of the administration, and an administration cannot be expected to furnish political capital against itself. The appointees of the board of supervisors will reflect the wishes of those who chose them. It will be done consciously and unconsciously. It is simply inevitable. The inspector whose orders come from a chief, who looks to the same chief as the buyer, will not be so critical of the work of the buyer, because he will feel that what the latter has done must reflect the wishes of the powers that be.
The comptroller should be a check upon the treasurer, and in order that both should not be under the same control, if the board of supervisors should appoint a treasurer and one of its members should be required to assume the duties of the comptroller as his special field, probably the effectiveness of that
department would be preserved because its head would have to account personally to the public for its conduct.
A change from a large to a small board of supervisors would involve some modifications of town government because the supervisor has much to do outside of his duties as a county official. He is really the mayor of the town, but it would be easy to arrange to fill his place. The problem of equalization could be settled by abolishing the town assessors and creating a county board of assessors. This would insure a more uniform and intelligent handling of the tax problem. It would do away with much injustice, incompetence and hard feeling, and would be a great improvement.
The comptroller of the state of New York has a corps of expert accountants whose duty it is to examine the affairs of county officials. They were recently at work in Buffalo and one of them told me that throughout the state the present system of county government wastes about a third of the money raised. I do not know how much is spent by the counties of New York state, but if they expend on the average one-fourth of what Erie county does the total loss for the state, exclusive of the counties in Greater New York city, is nearly $7,000,000 annually. There must be localities in which the percentage of waste is not so high. It certainly is not so great in our county, and no government can be devised that will not show some loss in operation, but in spite of these factors it is clear that a goodly sum is thrown away every year. The time has come when the burden of taxation has risen so high that the public will no longer tolerate the wasteful methods of the past. A change in county government is bound to go with other changes in government that are upon us. In conclusion, let me say, that to one who has wrestled for some years to get results out of our present imperfect county machinery, it is a source of hope and inspiration to find the intelligence and power for leadership represented by the Academy of Political Science turning its attention to this neglected but important field of local government.
H. S. GILBERTSON
Executive Secretary, National Short Ballot Organization
LL the speakers at last night's session emphasized the importance of getting away from the popular political
doctrines of separation of powers and division of responsibility. No branch of American government illustrates these traditions quite so well as the counties. Mr. Buck has pointed out that the county government in this state consists of a variety of independently elected officers operating as separate units, and very frequently out of harmony with one another. In our counties there is no executive head, there is in practice no definite form of executive control, except such as may be effected by gentlemen's agreements among a group of mutually congenial men, or by extra-legal agencies such as county chairmen or other party leaders. If you will examine the county law you will find that practically the only form of legal compulsion which can be exercised over any county official by any other is a resort to the courts.
It goes without saying that an organization of this kind is about as ill-fitted as anything could be to respond to public opinion. And we know that when government does not so respond, we need not be surprised at anything it does, or fails to do.
But it is not only their internal organization which makes counties unresponsive. The very nature of the county functions removes the officers from the field of public interest. This is particularly true in urban counties where nearly all the interesting local functions which come under constant view, and more or less affect the daily lives of every citizen, are handled
1 Discussion at the meeting of the Academy of Political Science, November 20, 1914.
by the cities, while the county officials, outside of the district attorney, and to a certain extent the sheriff, perform nothing but the driest of routine functions. These conditions make the county offices particularly attractive to the kind of politicians who are not nearly so keen about serving the public interest as they are about drawing the salaries, which in some of our counties, in this part of the state at least, are out of all proportion to the importance of the offices.
The county, moreover, is the unit of partisan organization, and it is therefore the county which more than anything else determines the tone of politics throughout the state. If the form of county government lends itself to the development of political machines-and it is quite certain that it does-then we have in county government an important key to the whole matter of state-wide political conditions.
Another difficulty with county government, particularly in this state, has been the attempt in the past to impose a uniform system upon all counties, regardless of their composition or environment or any other factor which makes the problems of one county distinct from those of another. The same basic type of county government which is in use in Warren county in the Adirondacks is employed in Westchester, one of the most populous counties in the United States. Of course, this policy can result in nothing but failure, and the county law in practice does not apply in all respects to all counties. And so, most of the counties have been obliged at one time or another, and some very often, to appeal to the legislature for special acts which will help them to meet their local conditions. There is a mass of this kind of legislation, and it makes for endless confusion.
Senator Root last evening asked for specific suggestions for the guidance of the delegates. In view of what I have just been saying, our discussion on county government should suggest an answer to this question: What shall the constitutional convention do to provide counties with a more responsive and responsible form of government, and one which is adapted to local needs?
In the first place, there is certain negative action to be taken.
The requirement in the constitution that certain county officers, to wit, the sheriff, county clerk, register of deeds and district attorney, be elective, should be eliminated and the legislature should be empowered to determine how in certain groups of counties these officers should be selected, whether by election or by appointment.
In the second place, I think the constitution should enunciate the principle of home rule as applied to counties. I do not mean home rule in the same sense that will be used later in this session in connection with cities, but I do think that, subject to the necessity for their maintaining a proper establishment for the execution of state laws, the counties should be free to adapt the form of their government to the kind of population they have and the degree of interest which their citizens are willing to take in the management of county affairs. The constitution, in other words, should not only make it possible for the legislature to give the various counties options between two or more sound types of responsible government, but it might go so far as to lay down this course of action as a definite obligation upon the legislature. It should go even so far as to permit counties and cities where the boundaries are coterminous, to consolidate in such a way as to leave but a single local agency for executing the laws of the state. Such a form of organization would be of particular benefit to New York city. It might help Erie county; and in Schenectady, where about eighty-five per cent of the county is in the city of Schenectady, a number of leading citizens already have this idea in mind. It has been put into effect in other communities in other states, as for example, Denver, San Francisco and St. Louis.
County government is opening up as one of the most fruitful fields of political investigation. We shall not go far astray if in the present undeveloped stage of this thought and investigation we accept as our guiding principles the short ballot and the largest measure of home rule which is consistent with the proper execution of state laws.