A year before he died, I stopped by the Sardinia home of Art Carlsen, who, as chairman of the Erie County Board of Supervisors, presided over the creation of the office of county executive and transformation of the old board into a "modern" legislature.
I didn't make a second drive up Genesee Road in time to ask him, but often wonder what that country gentleman would have said about the current rift between rural supervisors and the county executive over highway plowing and sheriff's patrols. Would cutting those services havebeen a topic of discussion at his board, even after a weighted voting system tied to the varying population of the towns and wards was put in place?
Back in the early days, every town and ward supervisor had an equal voice in the affairs of county government. One of the ways this took expression was the board's choosing as their leader, and county titular head, the supervisor of the least populous town.
Conversely, in modern times, the county executive's office has become a bully pulpit. A June 2001 Buffalo News series on local leadership found that the current holder of that office individually had greater perceived power than the entire "people's house" and four other countywide elected executives. Why was this so?
If the dreamers of consolidated metro government have their way, hundreds of elected town and village representatives throughout the county would be replaced by a handful of legislators. Because citizens understand the implications of this, the Legislature's last size reduction will actually work against greater regionalization.
It was stunningly revealed that the former administration neglected the youth detention facility. The recent grand jury on the highway scandal case felt compelled to issue helpful structural and operational recommendations.
These indicators make it apparent that our partisan Legislature, as an institution, may not be equipped to do an adequate job of overseeing county departments and holding the commissioners they confirm accountable to the people of Erie County.
The current administration, with an urban revitalization agenda that has many merits, has shown itself disinterested or out of touch with the reality on the ground in the rural towns, villages and hamlets of Erie County. In light of this disconnect between county and town priorities, isn't it time we go to a strengthened, compact, bipartisan, professionally staffed board of supervisors, thus recreating our two-tiered form of regional governance?
While that may not be the entire solution to our region's woes, we need a nonpartisan, broadly appointed citizens' charter review commission so that we can begin to look at what types of structural reform might bring some sanity to the political process here in Erie County.
Richard L. Taczkowski is a master of urban and regional planning student at UB who served on the town and village boards of North Collins. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org