Joel A. Giambra told a special commission today that Erie County could be better run by a professional manager who can ignore many of the political concerns that dog elected county executives, including Joel Giambra.
"If you take some of the toxic politics out of it, you have a chance to run a billion-dollar corporation more effectively," he said this week, as he readied the speech he gave this morning to the 23-member Charter Revision Commission. "I think that's what limited our effectiveness over the last five years."
His statements today might startle some listeners. Giambra owes his career to the system he played well for years. Now, with his star descending, he says Erie County's current structure is no way to run a county.
A county executive should still be in charge and hold the veto pen, Giambra says. But a county manager would ensure things got done the right way and for the right reasons.
"The county manager form of government is in place in about one-third of this country," Giambra said in his speech. "Professional county managers manage counties from Los Angeles to Fairfax, Va., to Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., to Pima County in Arizona."
In the system he envisions, the county manager would report to the county executive and Legislature.
The county manager -- think chief operating officer -- would draft budgets and hire or fire all of those appointees whom county executives hire or fire now. The only employees reporting directly to the county executive would be those 20 or so in his immediate office.
> National search
In Giambra's scenario, the county manager would be hired after a national search by a committee of seven, four members appointed by the county executive and two by the Legislature and one by the county comptroller. The Legislature would approve the contract, which Giambra says should extend for five years so it straddles the terms of the elected leaders.
As for the salaries, Giambra says a top-flight county manager would command $175,000 to $200,000 a year. He does not see the approximately $100,000 salary changing for the county executive, who would become more of a policy-setter and emissary for Erie County and Western New York.
Erie County voters ultimately would decide whether to enact a county manager system, assuming the Charter Revision Commission and next year's County Legislature send Giambra's proposal to a referendum in November.
Weeks ago, Giambra reached out to a friend and occasional campaign donor, Mark Hamister of the Hamister Group of Cos., to help him research the effectiveness of county-manager governments and to assemble the documents Giambra will give county lawmakers so a community debate can begin.
"Any county executive is going to be a good politician," Hamister said. "He is understanding there is another side to this, and that's the day-to-day operations. I laud him for recognizing the two should be operated in a different way. The taxpayer should expect an operational side free from politics."
Early in his first term, Giambra structured his office to allow for an operating officer. Deputy County Executive Carl Calabrese was given a strong hand in directing daily affairs while Chief of Staff Bruce L. Fisher helped develop strategy and policy.
Calabrese dealt with many day-to-day issues and ran the monthly meetings of commissioners and department heads. But he often clashed with Fisher and, feeling burned out, Calabrese resigned early this year.
While most counties in the nation do not have a professional county manager, the percentage with a manager grew from 21 percent in 1986 to 38 percent in 2000, according to the International City/County Managers Association.
> Some have no executive
However, while many cities with a city manager also elect a mayor, it's less common for counties with a county manager to also elect a county executive. As a result, some counties run without a leader elected to oversee their executive branch.
"I think it has worked well," said Susan Savage, chairwoman of the legislature for Schenectady County, which neighbors Albany County and is home to about 150,000 people, one-sixth of the number in Erie. "The legislature sets the agenda and expects the appointed county manager to apply it. So by not having a county executive, we eliminate that level of discussion that sometimes goes on between county legislatures and executives. The county legislature is the policy-setting and lawmaking body," she said.
Giambra proposes a system akin to those in Frederick County, Md., and Miami-Dade, Fla., which have elected chief executives and appointed professional managers.
"This area . . . has a long history of having an elected political leader who sets policy and provides the visible elected leadership," said Leonard Matarese, Buffalo's human resources commissioner who has been credentialed by the International City/County Managers Association and was a resource for Giambra's speech today. "This model fits the needs of Erie County better than the other models."
"If you look at successful communities, there is a political piece that has to be done. There is a policy piece that has to be done. There is a community-engagement piece that has to be done. And there is an execution piece -- how services actually get delivered," said Bob O'Neill, executive director of the ICMA. "It would be awfully hard for a single person to be great at all of those things."
> Timing is questioned
The timing of Giambra's speech might hurt its effectiveness. He presided over one of the worst financial meltdowns in county history. The Republican Party leadership wants nothing to do with him, and Democrats figure that they can retake the county executive's post in 2007.
Giambra wants to repair his image and change the government for the better before he leaves office. He says he's convinced that a county-manager system would be better for Erie County.
How would Giambra have felt if the outgoing county executive had tried to diminish the county executive's powers just as Giambra took office?
"If I knew then what I know now, I would think that would have been an appropriate way to run the government," Giambra said. "Right now, the focus should not be on who the county executive is going to be, but on what is the best form of governance. That's why this makes sense."