With its proposal for an appointed county manager, the Erie County Charter Revision Commission has given citizens something to contemplate. It might inform commission deliberations and public debate to look back to the political history of the county.
The reform-minded Buffalo Municipal Research Bureau, an outgrowth of the Progressive Era of the early 1900s, was a champion of the city manager form of government. However, the county manager idea first emerged from the Erie County Survey (Kennifick Commission). After the latter released its first report in 1935, the only one of its many reorganization reforms brought to a countywide referendum was that for a county manager. It was defeated at the polls.
The idea of an elected county executive with a veto pen was equally absurd to Depression Era Buffalonians. In a Courier-Express article of March 1935, County Attorney Layton H. Vogel remarked of the office and veto: "A good man would not want that much power and a poor executive should not have it."
Instead, he proposed that the veto be placed in a board of three officeholders. Resistance to a county manager or executive succeeded until 1959, when, confronted with suburban sprawl, state mandates and an ever-growing assumption of city services, the 54-member Board of Supervisors was compelled to seek a unifying figure to run the county.
While the current Charter Commission's proposal involves the County Legislature in selecting a manager, its retention of the County Executive's office is problematic. Taxpayers rightly question adding a layer of bureaucracy with a manager. But it was the executive's office that was clumsily grafted onto a structure that already possessed a chief administrative body and four countywide officials who executed state and county laws and regulations. Last year, those independently elected officers sued the county executive for usurping the legislative branch's budgetary authority. Therefore, under our current system, it is pure fantasy to believe that one person can speak for the entire executive branch.
One way to improve the commission's proposal is to abolish the office of county executive and adopt an idea that former Erie County Legislature Chairman James Kane proposed in the 1970s -- make the Legislature's president elected countywide. In addition to the current "housekeeping" authority of the chairman, the presiding officer would sit on important regional boards and commissions, and in the spirit of Vogel's vision, share the veto and budget-proposing power equally with four other countywide elective officers as chairman of a new Executive Policy Board. This body would recommend a county manager to the Legislature, which should be restored to its predecessor board's status as chief policy formulator for Erie County.
To those who fear a county without a face and a voice, the "county president," representing all of the people, would perform ceremonial functions as titular head of government.
Richard L. Taczkowski, a community activist, is completing graduate studies in urban and regional planning at UB.