A panel assigned to revise Erie County's Charter may soon suggest stripping many powers from future county executives and giving them to an appointed county manager, a non-partisan task-master who would author budgets and oversee most operations.
The county manager would be hired by the county executive, with Legislature consent, and have authority to hire and fire department heads.
For four decades, that right has gone to county executives who doled out top jobs to their loyalists to sustain a base of support.
If the change is approved -- by the Charter Revision Commission, the Legislature and then the voters -- the next Erie County executive would be more of a policy setter than an operating officer, accountable to voters but without many current responsibilities.
Democrats expect to retake the county executive's office when Republican Joel A. Giambra leaves at the end of 2007, so some in the party do not want the change. The Charter Revision Commission's chairman, Democrat George K. Arthur of Buffalo, argued against the county manager form of government during a vigorous debate last week.
Arthur later said he was not motivated by concerns for some future Democratic executive. To him, the government's near collapse last year resulted from poor decision-making, not poor rule-making, so he questions the need for a manager.
Arthur also said county executives always have been free to appoint an operations manager. Former Democratic County Executive Dennis T. Gorski did so with David Smith, his deputy who is now the manager for booming Maricopa County, Ariz.
Still, Arthur said he could eventually support the change if convinced it is tailored to Erie County's needs.
Two committees within the Charter Revision Commission recommend a county manager's office, and they comprise nine of the 23 members on the full panel. The idea, then, needs a few more votes to gain a simple majority. But most members agree that if the idea is to survive review by lawmakers and voters in November, it must win convincing support from all, or nearly all, of the 23.
They were appointed last year by county lawmakers -- nine of whom are no longer in office -- and by officials elected countywide, including Giambra. It was Giambra who put the county manager idea before the commission, reasoning that "if you take some of the toxic politics out of it, you have a chance to run a billion-dollar corporation more effectively."
In December, the commission met his suggestion with skepticism and curiosity, but has since been supportive.
"There is a good bit of optimism that it can work," said commission member Grant M. Hamilton of East Aurora.
Under the current suggestion, the county manager would be selected after a mandatory, nationwide search by a panel that would represent the Legislature and other officials elected countywide. The manager would be certified by the International City/County Management Association, which tells its members to "refrain from political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators."
The manager would author budgets, devise a four-year strategic plan and an annual business plan, attend every County Legislature meeting and provide financial reports to the Legislature, too. If the county executive fires the manager without cause, the government would pay out nine months' salary as severance, a rule intended to deter a rash dismissal.