A generation after Niagara County's first experience with a county executive, another attempt is being made to place a powerful administrator in charge of county government.
On Nov. 6, county residents will vote on a new charter that would add a county executive, who, instead of the County Legislature, would choose almost all department heads.
It also would reduce the Legislature to 15 members from 19 and cut down on tedious committee meetings.
The 14-member Charter Commission, which worked on the document for almost a year, rejected the idea of adding a controller.
But it proposed a county Planning Board that, like a controller, would report annually on whether the county was meeting the goals set out in its long-range development plan and short-term management plan.
Other changes in county operations would be minimal. A few departments would merge, but no other elected official would be affected.
"We wanted as few poison pills as possible," said Legislator Samuel P. Granieri, D-Niagara Falls, chairman of the Charter Commission.
Some veteran legislators, meanwhile, have been wondering how they will adjust to simply being legislators.
Committees now make many administrative decisions, sometimes without having to obtain the approval from the full Legislature.
"It's totally different. The committee system's gone," County Attorney Claude A. Joerg said. "You're not going to have these committees making decisions anymore."
He cited the lengthy discussion at the Sept. 18 Legislature meeting of promotions in the district attorney's office.
"We're shifting all that work over to the county executive," Joerg said.
"I think it's going to take a lot of getting used to. It's a new mind-set for the legislators," said Legislature Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster, R-Ransomville. "It's an adjustment in that the executive will have the administrative decision-making power."
The executive will be responsible for preparing a tentative budget, a task that actually will be handled by the budget director to be appointed by the executive. The budget would be submitted to the Legislature by Nov. 10 every year. The Legislature then would hold a public hearing and vote on the budget, including any changes, by Dec. 7. The executive would be allowed to veto any of the changes by Dec. 14, but the Legislature can override any or all of the vetoes by a two-thirds vote by Dec. 20.
If the Legislature doesn't act on the vetoes by Dec. 20, then the proposed budget, with any amendments the executive didn't veto, would become final.
Budget preparation was one of the failings of the 1974 charter, in the view of County Treasurer David S. Broderick, who ran for executive in 1975 but lost to the since-deceased Kenneth K. Comerford.
"The county executive allowed the budget to be prepared through the committee system," Broderick said. "I think that was a mistake. It should have been done by the budget officer. If I had been county executive, that budget would have been my budget."
Comerford, a Youngstown Democrat, was county executive for 15 months in 1976-77. His tenure ended abruptly when the U.S. Supreme Court voided the 1974 referendum that had approved the charter because it didn't receive a majority in the county's towns.
State law requires a "split referendum" or "dual referendum" to adopt a county charter.
On Nov. 6, therefore, the ballots cast in the county's three cities will be tallied separately from those cast in its 12 towns. To be adopted, the charter must win both votes; the countywide tally will be meaningless.
The 1974 charter won a countywide majority, but lost in the towns. The late Floyd Snyder, Town of Lockport supervisor at the time, spearheaded the lawsuit to invalidate it.
The Supreme Court, however, did not rule until March 1977; meanwhile, in the November 1975 election, Comerford defeated Broderick in the county executive race.
"We didn't get much of a chance to implement that county executive form of government," Broderick recalled. "I think that (1974) form was a little stronger than this one. I believe he had veto power over any resolution."
The proposed charter would allow the executive to veto local laws, any spending from the contingency fund, any supplemental appropriations not included in the budget and any borrowing, including bond issues. In each case, the Legislature would be able to override the veto by a two-thirds vote.
Comerford's missteps in office have become legendary in Niagara County politics.
"We ran for a salary of $29,000," Broderick recalled. "He came in and asked for $40,000 and the Legislature gave him $35,000. That left a bad taste in the voters mouths."
Comerford also rejected the two lowest bids for a county car for the executive, accepting the most expensive offer.
Then Comerford was discovered to have had a shower installed in his office on the second floor of what is now the Philo J. Brooks County Office Building.
Even though the Legislature had approved the $600 addition to outlays for office furnishings, the county executive's office became synonymous with extravagance.
"That's why the next one failed so badly," Broderick said, referring to the 1984 defeat of a proposed charter.
Salary adequacy questioned
If voters approve a new charter this year, an executive would be elected in November 2002. The position, which would carry a four-year term, would pay $85,000 a year. No one knows how much the executive's staff will cost.
"Nobody has done a cost analysis. I may do my own," said Broderick, who served on the Charter Commission and urged it to do so. "It could be closer to $500,000 if they give the county executive the staff he needs, and I'm not talking about a secretary with a desk."
Broderick said he wonders if $85,000 is an adequate salary. By next year, he noted, 10 other county employees will make more than that.
Whoever is elected, Burmaster said, won't have an easy job, because everything he does will set a precedent.
"He's going to have a lot of pressure. He's going to be scrutinized with a magnifying glass every day," Burmaster predicted, warning that any attempt to be energetic could backfire.
"There may even be some political distraction against him moving quickly," he added.
Legislator Lee Simonson, R-Lewiston, the only current legislator who served during Comerford's administration, predicted that day-to-day operations of the Legislature probably won't change much, but its responsibilities will.
The major difference, he said, would be the elimination of the long committee work sessions now part and parcel of preparing a budget.
"With the proper leadership, anything will work," Simonson said. "Our problem is not the system, it's the people in it. If good quality people present themselves to Niagara County voters and the voters elect those people, it will work."
He also warned that the officeholders must be willing to work together.
"An executive form of government will not save us if the personalities in office don't want to work with anybody," Simonson said. "Look at the City of Niagara Falls. They had a city manager form of government. They went to a strong mayor form of government. Now they don't know what they want.
"I don't want to sound negative. I'm supporting the charter. Let's hope we're not replacing one set of problems with another. Let's hope we're trading one set of problems for a new set of solutions."
Role of Planning Board
The county Planning Board would play a key role in assuring solutions, but would not be in charge of producing them.
It would review the "four-year strategic plan" that the administration would be required to submit annually and issue an annual report on progress on the issues in the previous year's strategic plan. The Legislature would have to hold a public hearing on the report before making any changes and voting on it.
The executive then would be able to make his own changes before the plan is completed. The Planning Board also would review an annual management plan, a report the county executive would be required to submit with his proposed budget, and evaluate the previous year's successes or failures.
The board's nine members, appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the Legislature, would serve three-year terms.
James L. Magavern, the Buffalo attorney who actually wrote most of the 82-page charter, adapted the extra duties for the Planning Board from Buffalo's recently adopted City Charter.
Magavern, who served as chairman of the commission that drafted the Buffalo charter, also is a former county attorney for Erie County. His firm, Magavern, Magavern & Grimm, was hired for $31,000 to supply legal research for the Charter Commission.
"What you've got in Niagara County is a combination of original provisions, provisions from the Erie County Charter, provisions from the (state) Alternative County Governments Law," he said, adding that most county charters around the state are quite similar.
"What I like about that is that it puts a strategic planning element in what the county does," said Granieri, the Niagara Falls legislator who headed the Charter Commission. "The intent, the philosophy behind that is to make sure all the economic development efforts of the county are integrated into a cohesive whole."
"One of the great advantages of an executive form of government is a strategic planning process, reviewed by an independent Planning Board," Magavern said.
Keeping 'toes to the fire'
If the board does its job properly, he said, it will "keep the public officials' toes to the fire."
The county executive's annual management report, to be submitted with the proposed budget, must include a list of his appointees for the previous two years who were exempt from Civil Service laws. He also must spell out their job duties. That way, according to Magavern, the Legislature "will know he's not appointing cronies."
Although business representatives had urged adding a controller for fiscal oversight, the Charter Commission retained the county treasurer, an elected official, as chief fiscal officer.
Although the executive, instead of the Legislature, would appoint the budget director, legislators would continue to choose the auditor, the only non-elected department head outside the executive's control.
'Too much government'
"That gives the Legislature someone who's working with the finances on a daily basis who reports to them if they're not comfortable with the other financial positions," Broderick said.
The district attorney, sheriff and county clerk would continue to be elected. The commission also rejected a medical examiner system in favor of retaining four elected coroners.
If the charter is adopted, the smaller County Legislature would be elected in 2003.
Granieri dismisses the claim, made at public hearings on the charter, that reducing the size of the Legislature would dilute representation.
"Niagara County is guilty of having far too much government," Granieri said. "Niagara County has 21 local governments for a quarter-million people. There's no lack of representation. I don't think anyone suffers from the Legislature districts being a couple thousand people larger."