County elected offices – More? Or Less?by Mark B. Evans on Oct. 18, 2012, under Uncategorized
TucsonCitizen.com Administrator/Editor Mark B. Evans thinks there is no need to elect many of the county offices, they could all be appointed by the Board of Supervisors, but Southern Arizona News-Examiner Editor Emil Franzi thinks Evans is nuts, the county needs more elected officers to make government more responsive to the people.
We need more elected rulers, not fewer
By Emil Franzi,
Southern Arizona News-Examiner
One of the principal characteristics of American exceptionalism is the manner in which we choose who shall govern us. When the nation was founded, we had few role models. The British parliament, some smatterings from Iceland and Switzerland, bits and pieces from Ancient Greece and Rome and a few native tribes. The concept of “citizen” was still being formed and had yet to replace “subject”.
We used a variety of methods in putting together that great experiment in self-government. molded by the various regional cultures brought to us primarily from our English forebears and other Enlightenment thinkers, but what we did pretty much resolve was the need to diffuse power. Our constitution exemplifies that with a long list of “do nots” which many have been trying since then, sometimes successfully, to weasel out of.
One of the biggest differences between us and our English and European predecessors is the large number of folks we choose to govern us. We did not set it up that way for “efficiency”. We set it up that way because we don’t trust each other.
It was not, as Mark alleges, to reduce corruption – sorry, Mark, never heard that one before. In fact, it probably increases petty corruption. Illinois has a very long ballot. Corruption wasn’t the issue, power was.
It’s a simple premise. People you get to vote for tend to treat you better than people you don’t.
There are other benefits. Political rivalry, particularly with partisan government, tends to be a check and balance not only on power but corruption and incompetence.
The Progressive movement, elitist in nature, has waged campaigns against these original concepts for over a century. They want less offices, longer terms, and the morphing of office-holders at all levels into policy makers, NOT constituent advocates.
The Populists who dominated Arizona’s Constitutional Convention created County offices and greatly diffused power. The gave each county a board of supervisors and seven elected line officers with the board acting as a quasi-legislative body with only budget powers over the seven who were given responsibility for everything except the Court system which consisted of elected superior court judges, Justices of the peace and constables. All but the judges were given two year terms. Most of the other 49 states and the approximately 3,000 counties were and mostly still are similarly structured.
Before moving to eliminate an office, one should first recognize what it does. The county attorney and sheriff are rather obvious. The assessor is too although the role has been eroded over the years if not the actual powers. Arizona assessors should note that if the writers of the state constitution had wanted them to be an employee of the state department of revenue, they wouldn’t have made them independent elected officials.
We also used to elect city assessors as well as others at the town level. Yuma still elects its city attorney. A constant wave of progressive “reforms” has eliminated most others.
The recorder does more than file deeds, although in the era of claim jumping one might understand why this office was elected and in the modern era of neo-claim jumping through newer scams why we might want it to stay that way. The record is also responsible for the voter registration roles and determining election eligibility. Many are not quite ready to make that job appointive.
The treasurer seems to be the focus of those who dismiss granting the discretions one possesses in elected office. But we in Pima County just noticed why that function should stay on the ballot. There was an issue raised by a candidate about the legitimacy of a travel claim made by a county supervisor. The issue was voluntarily clarified by an elected treasurer. Think an appointee would have done that? County treasurers have also been whistle blowers and watchdogs in other cases and should remain independent.
The clerk of the court is also more than a record keeper, although access to all public records should keep those in the reporting business wanting as much direct responsibility with that record keeper as possible. The clerk also both assigns personnel and is involved in judicial and staff selection in trials
The role of the county school superintendent has been diminished along with their budgets, but there is still one excellent reason to keep the office around and independently elected. They fill school board vacancies.
I’ll leave the court system to a separate discussion save for the constables. All the versions of the Robin Hood legend from Errol Flynn to Mel Brooks show us the power of the original sheriffs as the king’s agent. Constables have certain powers not assigned to the sheriff in reaction to that as another firewall against even an elected sheriff. Constables are also the only local official who can arrest the sheriff. Perhaps they have become symbolic, but what they represent is a good symbol, a symbol that reminds us that we are citizens and not subjects.
County government has grown and we now have more functions and employees working directly for the board than we do the line officers. That’s not a good reason to eliminate the line officers, it’s a good reason to add more.
Don’t like your roads? Let’s elect the Director of the County and City Departments of Transportation. Health Department blows too much money, inspectors too nasty? Elect that director too.
Self-government is hard. You have to pay attention. It’s easy to just slough it off and figure everything will be OK. Get rid of all these elected offices you don’t know much about. Let somebody appoint them. Who really cares.
We who do care and pay attention find someone else’s lack of interest and knowledge not a very good reason to change the system that has worked very well for the first hundred years of Arizona statehood.
. . .
We don’t need to elect so many county officials
By Mark B. Evans
Voting in the general election began October 11 with the distribution of early ballots, and as usual in presidential election years voters will have quite a long ballot to slog through.
At the top of the first side are the big races that most voters will be fairly well-informed about – president, congress, state Legislature and what not.
But at the bottom and on the flipside, voters will have to decide a bunch of races for which there is precious little information about the candidates or even what the office they’re running for does.
Most of those offices are in the county and they don’t need to be filled through an election. They’re anachronisms of the 19th century and there are better ways to hire clerks, accountants, process servers and justices of the peace.
In the 19th century, corruption was rampant but there was no FBI or state police to investigate public malfeasance. Consequently, one of the only ways for citizens to control their public officials was to make most public offices elected.
Moreover, Arizona is huge and getting to the capitol or from one county to another was an arduous and expensive journey. So local government was really local back then.
At statehood, Arizona only had about 250,000 residents, Pima County only about 26,000. So when voters elected a court clerk, he was the entire office. (The Sheriff had a couple of deputies).
Now in 21st century there are nearly 7 million Arizonans and 1 million Pima County residents and those county agencies are all big bureaucracies and there is no need to elect their leaders; the Board of Supervisors should appoint them. (And there should be more supervisors representing fewer people but that’s a different argument for another day).
Corruption is not anywhere near the problem it was 100 years ago plus there are robust state and federal law enforcement agencies tasked with investigating it when suspected – as the FBI’s recent surveillance of Attorney General Tom Horne proves.
And is there really a conservative or liberal way to file court records (court clerk), collect property tax payments (treasurer), oversee home school registrations (school superintendent) or record property transactions (recorder)? Do we really need to be electing process servers (constables) for the justice courts? Does any voter really have any idea whether a justice of the peace is really a good justice of the peace?
No to all.
Good arguments could be made about the political nature of the county attorney, sheriff and assessor but even better arguments could be made about how much better those offices could be run if you took some of the politics out of their leadership by making them beholden primarily to the standards of their profession rather than to their campaign donors and a fickle electorate.
To top it off, candidates for these offices are rarely opposed. Of the six county agency races this year, half are unopposed. Of the seven constable races, five are unopposed and all five justices of the peace are unopposed. If no one is even going to run against the current office holders, what’s the point in having an election?
Several of these offices are required by the state constitution; so to convert them to appointed offices requires a state ballot proposition.
So when we’re all filling out our ballot this year and sighing about how long it is and how we don’t really know much about any of the down-ballot races, keep in mind that the power to help ourselves by reducing the number of elected offices in the counties rests with us.
County elected office reform should be on the 2014 ballot.