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Dan Hust | Democrat

Ulster County Executive Michael Hein, left, speaks with members of a committee researching switching Sullivan County over to an elected county executive form of government. Pictured listening on Tuesday are Sean Rieber and Greg Goldstein.

A county executive?

By Dan Hust
LIBERTY — January 26, 2010 — The bipartisan committee exploring transitioning Sullivan County from a Legislature-appointed county manager to a publicly elected county executive got firsthand knowledge of the benefits and challenges last Tuesday.
Ulster County Executive Michael Hein and his chief of staff, Adele Reiter, joined committee members inside Cornell Cooperative Extension’s offices in Liberty to answer questions about his duties and relationships with county workers and other elected leaders.
Three years ago, Ulster County voters approved the very kind of switchover some in Sullivan County are mulling, and in the fall of 2008, Hein – then the county administrator, similar to Sullivan’s county manager – was elected as a Democrat to the newly created post of county executive.
Hein said the change was driven by voters’ general unhappiness with the state of Ulster County government, especially with huge cost overruns at the new county jail.
The changes aren’t complete yet either. By next year, Ulster County’s 33-member Legislature will be reduced to 23, representing a county of just over 180,000 year-round residents.
Hein’s tenure hasn’t been without controversy, with Republicans claiming the Democratically-controlled Legislature simply rubber-stamped his initiatives. However, this year the Republicans are in charge, and the new Legislature chairman, Fred Wadnola, said he’s not interested in switching back to the county administrator system.
Hein championed the new form of government at Tuesday’s meeting but cautioned committee members not to simply follow Ulster’s lead.
“I’m not here to tell you what to do,” the Ulster County native and former banker said. “That’s up to the people of Sullivan County.”
For Ulster, he believes the county executive offered a positive alternative to “part-time people [legislators] trying to run a $350 million operation.”
Hein focused on his ability to speedily make decisions, agree to contracts under $50,000 (anything over requires legislative approval), hire and fire staff, and set up government according to the needs of the entire populace rather than the whims of politicians.
“The Legislature does set policy and appropriations,” he remarked.
“So they can control you that way,” observed committeeman and Neversink Town Supervisor Greg Goldstein, a former Sullivan County legislator.
“I like to think they control that portion of the government,” Hein replied.
According to Ulster County’s charter, legislators can approve or deny the county budget and can create or amend laws – but Hein has line-item veto power, meaning he can refuse to approve a particular law, thus blocking its enactment.
The only recourse of the Legislature is to get two-thirds of the legislators to overrule Hein’s veto.
Hein also oversees most of the county’s 2,200 employees, and he has structured departments more along a “pyramid” model than what he called the “silo” version.
Rather than being dedicated to particular departments (“silos”), staff are shared when and where needed, he said. For example, if an accountant in the highway department has skills and expertise to help out in the personnel department, she’ll be empowered to do so.
Rigid departmental divisions have been eliminated, said Hein, to avoid territorialism and favoritism.
“It just makes for a much more efficient operation,” he explained.
Hein appoints his own staff, which includes Reiter and three deputies – one to oversee financial issues, one for the highways and human services, and one for criminal justice.
Reiter doesn’t oversee a particular department, she said, in order to ensure a level of impartiality in decision-making.
Subject to Legislature confirmation, Hein also appoints department heads but lets those supervisors hire and fire their own personnel.
Elected officials like the sheriff and district attorney – while technically under Hein’s purview – are free to handle their own staffs as they see fit, he added.
However, financial controls are tight, thanks to a central purchasing office. Hein said this arrangement honors his accountability to the taxpayers and their wallets, as opposed to the sheriff and DA’s responsibility to the general citizenry’s health and welfare.
Hein pointed out he relishes the challenges inherent in dealing with such a wide variety of people.
“Bringing together divergent opinions is one of the best parts, I think, of being county executive,” he remarked.
Hein said the various ski areas in Ulster County once were bitter rivals, but he brought them together to jointly advertise their offerings, creating a regional discount ski pass in the process.
“They had a 10-to-1 return on their investment,” he recalled.
He did something similar with the eight regional banks serving the county, getting them to agree to pool their resources in order to make more capital available for struggling small businesses.
“They’re taking 1/8th the risk, not the whole risk anymore,” Hein explained, “and that was much more appealing to them.”
But what if he runs into legislative opposition to his initiatives?
“You can have the executive go to that legislator’s district and explain the folly of their decision-making,” he replied.
A question of even more concern was raised by Neil Gilberg, a county resident and former county clerk now employed by the state: what if an inexperienced but popular person is elected as county executive?
“In a democratic situation, you ultimately have to trust the will of the people,” said Hein. “... Can you have a popular incompetent? Sure.
“... It’s not for the faint of heart to start a brand new government,” he added.
But he did say that specifications can be created in the charter to help ensure experienced candidates are running.
“And I always say: you answer to who hired you,” he remarked.
Hein said he meets with town supervisors on a monthly basis and remains accessible to the public, especially online.
Noting he’s been both a Republican and a Democrat in his political life, Hein said he doesn’t even know some of the supervisors’ political affiliations.
“You’re about getting things done, and they’re about getting things done,” he remarked.
Notably, Hein did not discount the legislative layer of government, believing it provides a better level of checks-and-balances than a board of supervisors would.
And he pointed out that wherever possible, he used existing staff rather than creating additional positions, thus limiting the extra costs associated with this new form of government. In fact, the county’s workforce is down about 100 in the past year, much of that through attrition, Hein said.
He ended his presentation to the committee with a word of warning.
“I would caution against trying to steer the process,” he said. “If you’re going to try to save the electorate from themselves, it’s a mistake. Trust the people.”
Committee members largely liked what they heard – and were very impressed with Hein himself.
“Everybody had a ton of positive feedback about Mike,” committeeman Sean Rieber said afterwards. “I would love to have him in Sullivan County.”
While that’s not likely, the committee is aiming to have a vote in November where the county’s populace can determine whether or not they want to shift to an elected county executive.
Rieber said the committee is planning to meet in the next few weeks with County Manager David Fanslau, Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther and even Ulster County legislators unhappy with Hein, all in an effort to better understand the pros and cons.
The meetings are not open to the public. But by April, Rieber added, the committee hopes to create a presentation that will then be used at a number of “firehouse chats” across the county.
“We want to deliver the true facts and figures,” said Rieber.
At those meetings, public input will be welcomed and encouraged.
Afterwards, a formal recommendation will be made. At this point, it appears an effort will be mounted to either have legislators approve the transition or, more likely, to gain the needed 10 percent of registered voters’ signatures (in Sullivan County’s case, about 4,500 people) in order to hold a referendum in November.
For more information, Rieber welcomes emails at or at 794-1532. Questions, comments and input will be circulated to committee members.

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