Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The County Mayor's Office: Ahead Of Its Time

After 31 years of being maligned and ridiculed, it actually looks like Shelby County was being visionary when it created the mayor’s job.

At least that’s the conclusion we draw from recent debate in the largest local government in the United States – Los Angeles County, California.

There, they are considering a major “reform” of their $21 billion county government, and to do it by creating the office of mayor.

Here’s the problem. In California (except in its only consolidated government, San Francisco), the county government structure is a five-member board of supervisors that rotates the chairman’s job.

RX: Danger

It’s a prescription for disaster, or at least the governmental version of it – there’s no strong CEO to direct policy and set an overarching agenda. Too many things are the product of groupthink or political hardball, and with the power shifting yearly to a new chairman, there’s not much hope for continuity or cohesiveness.

Of course, this was almost the case when Shelby County Government was restructured by public referendum in 1974. But we only had a three-headed monster engaged in our power-sharing arrangement – one elected official over administration and finance, another over public works and a third over community services.

This clumsy structure was replaced in 1976 with a single county executive, and to top things off, the new county charter called for this office to be called mayor.

Batting .500

There were two reasons this was done.

First, it was thought that by having a mayor and structuring county government to look like a mirror image of city government, the public would see the wisdom of consolidating the two large urban governments.

Second, it was thought that having a mayor at the helm would give that person the best chance of elevating the image and impact of county government.

Well, one out of two ain’t bad. Despite the logic of consolidation, there’s never been a vote scheduled since the county mayor’s position was created, but without question, having the title of mayor has given all four county mayors a stature that actually surpassed their power.

Strong Executive Powers

That’s the real lesson for LA County. The fundamental obstacle to improved county efficiency is the plethora of elected officials that populate all kinds of obscure offices and sometimes manage only a handful of employees.

When Roy Nixon took office as the first county mayor in 1976, he often said that he was mindful that his actions would determine whether county government had a strong mayor structure. His concern was right on target, but with nothing done back then to reduce the number of political outposts, the truth is that the mayor never was going to be the kind of strong mayor seen in City Hall. Even today, when you look at the budget of Shelby County Government, the mayor has direct control over less than one of every four dollars.

In LA County, they are talking about creating a county mayor, but based on our experience, it can never have its full impact if they aren’t also talking about eliminating some of the elected heads of county departments, such as the tax collector, appraiser and clerks.

Ruling Nothing Out

We now have that unexpected opportunity as a result of the ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court that many of these elected positions – register, trustee, sheriff, clerk and assessor - were not legally ratified when the county passed home rule government in 1984.

As a result, the county board of commissioners has the chance to make county operations more efficient and lean. The question is whether they are up to the task.

On paper, it looked simple to some observers, because it would give the Democratic majority on the board of commissioners the chance to eliminate elected offices now held by Republicans. But here’s the catch: the political calculus clearly concludes that by the next election, the demographic wave in this county will sweep in Democratic officials any way, so why eliminate jobs whose spoils the Democratic Party can enjoy in three years?

Doing Something More Than The Ordinary

If the commissioners take the easy way out, they’ll do little more than ratify the same elected officials and we’ll continue to have someone elected to file legal documents, someone to collect taxes and deposit them in the bank, someone to sell marriage and car licenses, someone to appraise property, and, well, you get the picture.

There’s little logic for why these offices are elected and not simply part of the mayor’s administration, and it would be regrettable if the commissioners didn’t take this opportunity to give some serious thought to what a new, improved county structure could look like, what could make it more efficient and what models are working best in other parts of the country.

Even with the mayor and home rule, Shelby County Government possesses a culture that defies even Mayor A C Wharton’s determined attempts to make it more entrepreneurial and innovative. With political power bases scattered across the county org chart, the presence of these offices is a contributor to what a county commissioner calls the incestuous culture of county government.


Symptoms range from issues as small as getting every elected official to follow county personnel policies or as large as removing arguments about the authority to invest the billions of dollars collected by Shelby County each year. Perhaps, rather than rubber stamp the elected offices in question, county government could use this as the launching pad for a renewed campaign to reduce the growing bureaucracies taking place in department like finance, where, like many support departments, managers no longer see their customers as other departments but see themselves as having veto power over policy decisions by county directors and administrators.

In California, it has been said that in county government, the buck stops nowhere. Here, we would quibble with that conclusion, because even when it’s not his decision, the buck stops in Shelby County with the county mayor, regardless of which elected official actually made the decision or created the problem.

These days, we toss around words like accountability, efficiency, transparency, lines of authority and performance standards, but the convoluted structure of our county government often makes the words little more than rhetorical flourishes.

Fixing The Fragments

The Los Angeles Times editorialized that “the nation’s largest government is broken. There is no one really in charge (of county government), exercising full executive authority.”

We made strides with the restructure of Shelby County Government in 1974 and with home rule 10 years later, but the truth is that the LA Times editorial applies to us, too, because as long as there are domains that fragment and splinter executive authority, the county mayor will never realize the founding philosophy so long ago of a single, strong county executive.


Anonymous said...

If the county mayor could have appointed the county sheriff in last year's election, Reginald French probably now would be our sheriff.

Anonymous said...

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