The Executive Director of New York State Association of Counties, Stephen Acquario, spent almost 90 minutes defining concepts and answering questions. He began by praising the county legislature for launching the effort at a pivotal time, with a pending casino and the impact that will have on the county’s economy, and with the revenue to come to county government.
Acquario (center, gesturing): “… we are not the problem.”
Acquario emphasized a positive attitude.
“We need to take time to understand local government because the state is trying to define us as inefficient and the problem, and we are not the problem,” Acquario said.
He said a critical error would be for the commission to not properly identify the issues it can reasonably control.
“I don’t think that it’s fair for the commission to
criticize property taxes or the economy or hold the legislature, legislative
form of government, responsible for that. There’s many factors that
have gone into the economy, property taxes here in Sullivan County, most
if not all of that at the state level.”
And, if after several months of clearly focused work, the commission decides to not fix something that isn’t broken, Acquario said that would be a good outcome.
“Going through this exercise of understanding the government, its role, its purpose, even if you came out of this process and said we like our government, we think it functions just fine, you’ve done your job and you’ve helped the people of this county and the future generations.”
He concluded by looking at what has happened statewide in the past two decades. Several counties have adopted charters, or have changed government without a charter.
Of New York’s 57 counties outside of New York City, 23 have charters, 18 of them have elected county executives and five have county managers. Most recently in the Hudson Valley, in 2004, neighboring Ulster County, which had a legislature and multiple-member districts, and a county manager, changed to single-member districts with an elected county executive.
Acquario said after some initial challenges, Ulster’s experience has been positive.
Following the discussion, Acquario had a list of topics that seemed to surface, including staggered terms for legislators. That’s something he personally recommends, to avoid a complete turnover, something that almost happened with the Sullivan County Legislature election two years ago.
While county legislators are not members of the 13-member commission, several attended the Tuesday night session, including Cora Edwards, who invited Acquario.
“I think it’s helping to set the tone for how this Charter Review Commission can continue.”
The charter commission has several months in which to present their recommendations.