Dan Hust | Democrat
From the left, legislators Alan Sorensen, Kitty Vetter, Cora Edwards, Cindy Gieger and Gene Benson took turns yesterday explaining their desire to investigate their authority pertaining to the county manager.
‘Let’s change county government’
Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO January 4 One hastily arranged press conference turned into two yesterday as legislators vied to further their visions of county government.
Switch to executive?
Wednesday afternoon, Legislator Jonathan Rouis had invited the media to a mysterious announcement which turned out to be a “change of heart” in his prior opposition to a different method of government.
Now, he’s calling for his colleagues to form a Charter Review Commission to determine “how best to implement a county executive form of government.”
The nine-member commission (one member chosen by each legislator) would meet from March to August and then make recommendations to the Legislature, which could choose to put it to county voters in November 2014.
If voters agreed, a popularly elected county executive would replace the current county manager, who is appointed by the Legislature similar to the government structure in neighboring Orange and Ulster counties.
Why the shift in position?
“It is clear our current form of government does not work in the real world,” Rouis assessed.
“Our current governmental structure has hampered our ability to make meaningful change and move the county forward for the betterment of residents,” he said. “Members of our Legislature have become bogged down with managing staff and personal agendas and are unable to focus the best of their efforts on policies that will move our county forward economically so that our residents can prosper.”
But the move also promises to accomplish another objective: Rouis’ desire to hold off on some of his colleagues’ determination to oust County Manager David Fanslau.
Rouis worked very closely with Fanslau when he was chair of the Legislature and continues to be considered the legislator with whom Fanslau has the best relationship.
Under Rouis’ plan, Fanslau would remain the county’s chief appointed leader until January 1, 2015, when the county executive would take over.
Theoretically, Fanslau could run for that position himself, though the county manager did not return a request for comment at press time yesterday.
Rouis said he himself is not interested in the position but wants to approach the issue in “the most open and transparent way.”
He also announced his intention to appoint Rock Hill resident, Monticello businessman and Sullivan County Democratic Committee Vice Chair Sean Rieber to the Charter Review Commission.
Nearly four years ago, Rieber launched an initiative to study the county executive form of government. Though that effort ultimately did not lead to a ballot question, Rieber who was in attendance yesterday confirmed he still “wholeheartedly” supports the concept.
“I’ve long advocated that it’s a better form of government,” he remarked, arguing that despite well-publicized battles between legislators and the executives in Ulster and Orange counties, the neighboring forms of government “have been a success.”
Fears that this move might create an extra and more expensive layer of government are “not necessarily true,” he added.
“It does not have to cost more money,” Rieber argued.
He hopes to have the opportunity to explain that through the Charter Review Commission.
“I’m honored to be part of the process,” he affirmed.
Rouis agreed that, at least in Ulster County, the switch to a county executive “has been a change for the better.”
Rouis added that this would not be change for change’s sake but could provide the county a “louder” voice at the state level and stronger leadership at the county level.
What about the county manager?
Immediately after Rouis finished speaking, five legislators stepped to the podium to articulate their own goals.
Alan Sorensen, Kitty Vetter, Cindy Gieger, Cora Edwards and Gene Benson indicated they aren’t averse to exploring the county executive idea but they appeared adamant about dealing with their dissatisfaction with Fanslau sooner rather than later.
“There are issues that need to be addressed now for better governance,” said Gieger. “... Sullivan County needs a new direction.”
“I don’t think we can afford to sit and maintain the status quo for the next two years,” agreed Sorensen. “... We need focus, we need leadership, and the decisions of the majority of the Legislature need to be respected.”
Those five legislators do represent a majority of the Legislature, but according to Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson, they need a sixth legislator (a supermajority) if they want to fire Fanslau.
That advice came from the County Attorney’s Office, and while Sorensen and company said it was the potential conflict of interest and not dissatisfaction with County Attorney Sam Yasgur, they plan to introduce a resolution this month to seek an independent attorney to provide advice on their options regarding Fanslau’s employment agreement.
Though opinions differ, it appears that agreement which Samuelson says is not a binding contract expired on December 31, leaving the county manager an “at-will” employee.
The resolution the aforementioned five legislators plan to propose would hire outside legal counsel for up to $5,000 to address “discrepancies in the current ‘agreement’ and to seek a ‘new agreement’ that is satisfactory to all parties (current Legislature and county manager).”
The five also are proposing their own change in the Sullivan County Charter to allow a five-member majority, instead of a six-member supermajority, to remove a county manager.
Edwards pointed out that the Charter was initially written that way, only being changed to the six-member requirement in 2007.
“We’re calling for an amendment back to the original intent,” she explained.
The proposed resolution puts it in far stronger language: “It is intended that this amendment will make the County Legislature more responsible, more productive, in greater control of its own affairs and responsibilities to the qualified electors of the county, better able to promulgate policy as mandated by law, and therefore more productive, not subject to an unwanted manager and a minority of the members of the Legislature.”
Interestingly, the current Charter also mandates that six legislators agree to appoint a county manager but as Edwards noted, there is currently not a supermajority willing to renew Fanslau’s agreement, just as there is not one to let him go.
What about the other three legislators?
In an interview afterwards, Chairman Samuelson indicated support for Rouis’ proposals and disappointment in the conduct of the five who followed.
He strongly disagreed with the ongoing contention that he and Fanslau have kept information from legislators.
“The only closed-door operations that have gone on is within that five,” he stated, accusing them of a “lack of respect and willingness to have conversations and compromise ever.”
While he has no beef with hiring outside legal counsel, Samuelson wished his colleagues had worked on an “exit strategy” for Fanslau “instead of surprise press conferences that just humiliate somebody.”
Though he also has no problem with exploring a county executive form of government, he personally remains opposed to the switch and reiterated his support for Fanslau.
“This is a human being who’s given his life to this county,” Samuelson remarked. “His knowledge of how this county works is exceptional.… He’s only acted absolutely professionally from the very beginning.”
He believes Fanslau intends to stay if legislators will let him.
“All he’s asking for is a fair shake,” Samuelson said, “and I don’t think he’s getting it.”
He condemned the idea of changing the charter to remove the county manager by simple majority.
“It’s crap,” Samuelson bluntly stated. “… It’s ‘this way or no way.’ ... But there are four other legislators here who have credible and viable opinions.”
Legislators Kathy LaBuda and Ira Steingart said afterwards that they too are amenable to looking into a county executive but remain supportive of Fanslau.
LaBuda shares Samuelson’s opposition to a switch in government, whereas Steingart said he’s changed his mind in the past few months, now leaning toward the executive idea.
“I think we need a stronger voice when it comes to economic development and also in areas where there are ‘mixed decisions’ by legislators,” Steingart explained.
While both felt voters can decide the executive issue, LaBuda said it should not be legislators’ current priority.
“To me, that’s just a small piece of the picture,” she remarked. “What’s on the top of my list is starting to work on a budget for next year.”