By Ronald Fraser
To avoid tyranny – the concentration of too much power in too few hands – James Madison long ago gave us the three-branch model of American public administration. In forming a government, powers are to be separated and divided among three independent branches – legislative, executive and judicial – so that each branch serves as a check on the actions of officials in the other two branches.
Both New York State and Erie County governments pass the separations of powers test: Proposed executive agency budgets and appointment of executive branch department heads must be approval by an independent, elected, legislative branch; and both the county executive and the governor may veto bills passed by the legislature.
At first glance, it appears the Town of Amherst – the ninth largest town in New York State – has passed the separation of powers test. Let’s take a closer look.
The Amherst town supervisor is an elected member of the Town Board, the legislative branch of government. While Amherst town law has created a separate executive branch, it also tells us, “The executive branch shall consist of the supervisor, except to the extent he performs legislative or other functions as a member of the Town Board. … The supervisor shall be the chief executive officer of the town and administrative head of the executive branch. He shall be responsible for the proper administration of Town affairs … [and] … shall appoint all officers and employees within the executive branch … subject to confirmation by the Town Board.”
Instead of creating an executive branch separate and apart from the legislative branch, with a chief executive officer independent of the town board, the Town of Amherst has concentrated executive branch powers in the hands of the supervisor, a member of the legislative branch.
The Amherst town supervisor, acting as the chief executive officer, prepares the annual executive branch budget. Then, at a meeting of the Town Board, he votes to approves his own budget.
As the chief executive officer, the supervisor appoints executive branch officers and then, as a member of the legislative branch, approves his own appointments.
As a member of the town legislature, the supervisor participates in passing laws. Then, as the chief executive officer, he decides how these laws will be carried out.
No question, larger, increasingly complex towns – Amherst employs more than 600 full-time workers – need a professionally managed executive branch. But there is another, equally compelling, benefit from an independent executive branch.
Town of Amherst officials have failed to heed James Madison’s famous observation that men are not angels and, for that reason, the principle of separation of powers was established to hold public officials accountable. Men are still not angels and the danger of placing too much power in too few hands is still with us today.
Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., is a member of the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government.