Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What Happened to County Government Reform?

Last year, David Pepper floated the idea of a significant reformation of county government. (Links: Pepper's post; my post.) The notion raised, I thought, interesting questions. Do we really need to have an elected Recorder, Treasurer, Auditor, Engineer, Clerk of Courts, and Coroner?* Does Wayne Coates do a better job recording deeds because he's a Democrat? Does William Brayshaw build better roads because he's a Republican?

A better county government might have a commission with three or five members with a strong president (called, in some states, a county executive). The commissioners would appoint most of the current elected row office holders. Presumably, there'd be not be an unelected county administrator, and the budget would be initially proposed by the commission president instead.

At the time Pepper floated the idea, I praised him for thinking about the big picture of governance. Unfortunately, we haven't heard any more about structural reform of county government. Granted, Pepper and his two colleagues have been busy putting out budgetary fires. (Okay....Pepper has also recently found time to start thinking up ways to harass homeless people sleeping outside the courthouse but I'm sure that's just a hobby, since the homeless have occupied that space for years without incident.) But I hope that the commissioners aren't so busy examining the trees that they're not able to see the forest.

Pepper is in an interesting position. He's essentially a lame duck (since he's announced he's running for State Auditor in 2010, he obviously can't run for re-election to his commission seat that year, when his term expires). Certainly over the next year we'll see less and less of him in the county as he ramps up his state-wide campaign. But a lame duck--someone whose efforts cannot be viewed as a power grab--could be just the right kind of person to lead a massive overhaul of county government, as he might have some immunity against the entrenched interests (i.e., the elected office holders who'd lose their jobs) who would oppose any sort of progress.

Of course, Pepper might take the tack of another politician whose name begins with "P," decide that being a lame duck is just no fun, and ignore the tougher aspects of his office for the next year and a half. But that doesn't seem like Pepper's style. And I think he'd actually enjoy the challenging of redesigning our local government.

*For native Cincinnatians who learned about all these offices in grade school or high school civics: be glad you didn't grow up in Pennsylvania, where you had to figure out what a prothonotary is! (It's basically the clerk of courts.)

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