A special committee on reforming Niagara County government is expected to recommend appointing a county administrator instead of creating an elected post of county executive.
The 12-member Ad Hoc Committee on Government Restructuring tried to hold its final meeting Wednesday night in the Niagara Falls Public Library, but fell one member short of a quorum. Despite that, the chairman, Legislator Samuel P. Granieri, R-Niagara Falls, said the consensus of opinion appears clear.
The meeting was scheduled for 6 p.m. next Wednesday in the library. Granieri said the panel's report, to be considered by the Legislature, will call for combining an administrator, to be appointed by the lawmakers, with a reorganization of county departments.
The committee was created in April to study two resolutions introduced by Legislator Renae Kimble, D-Niagara Falls. One was a full county charter, including an elected executive; the other was a law creating the position of county administrator.
An outline of the panel's proposed report, distributed by Granieri to the members present, declared the concept of an executive is "not politically viable."
Granieri noted that the county's towns have staunchly opposed the notion of having an executive, with most town boards having passed resolutions against the concept.
The ad hoc committee, which held four public input sessions, detected "no grass-roots energy or support" for an executive, the report outline said. Nor has anyone stepped forward to strongly champion the concept, other than editorial writers in local newspapers.
The post could only be created by having a county charter approved at the polls, while the Legislature has the power to pass a local law to set up an administrator anytime it wants, with only a single public hearing required.
In 1974, county voters seemed to have approved a charter in a referendum, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the charter had really been defeated because a majority of voters in the county's 12 towns voted no. The margin of victory came from the three cities.
By the time the Supreme Court ruled, Kenneth K. Comerford, elected in 1975, had served 15 months as executive.
In 1984, another charter was submitted to voters, but it was defeated.
In March, a private poll commissioned by the Niagara Business Alliance showed 37.2 percent of county residents supported having a county executive, 31.7 percent were opposed, and 31.1 percent were undecided. Barry Zeplowitz and Associates of Buffalo surveyed 800 residents over a five-day period.
Granieri's outline said that there will be enough money saved from the departmental reorganization that the new administrator job won't result in a budget increase.
Granieri said internal reorganization is already being planned for 1999 in Social Services, the county's most costly department. He said other departments might undergo similar treatment, and some might be "clustered" together.
The administrator will provide "centralization of operation functions," Granieri said, with the intention of making day-to-day county operations and service delivery more efficient.
The only member of the ad hoc committee to speak out in definite support of the executive was Scott J. Whitbeck, executive director of the Niagara Business Alliance.
Although preferring the executive as a source of "independent leadership," Whitbeck yielded to the committee's concept of political reality. "With all that taken into account, if you can find an administrator system that acceptable, it would be a good middle ground."
The panel has also discussed whether the number of legislators should be reduced from the current 19, or whether the lawmakers' jobs should be made full-time. Granieri's outline called for waiting to discuss that issue in 2001, when the legislative districts have to be redrawn in the wake of the 2000 census.