Should old acquaintance be forgot ... just look at your county government | Blogh

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Should old acquaintance be forgot ... just look at your county government

Posted By on Tue, Dec 29, 2009 at 8:47 AM

Maybe it's the season, or perhaps its this look back at the county's home rule charter by the Post-Gazette's Karamagi Rujumba. But I find myself waxing nostalgic for the political hacks of yesteryear. 

A decade ago, voters remade county government by replacing the old county government -- led by a three-headed panel of county commissioners -- with an executive and part-time council. Those reforms also involved eliminating elected "row offices" like prothonotary, something long sought by good-government types. But according to the article, some reformers are feeling a twinge of remorse over how things have turned out: 

Detractors say home rule has evolved into another political machine, complete with its own circle of insiders and a culture of patronage only slightly better than the entrenched interests voters threw out.

"It seems that all we did was change the legal structure of the government," said Mark DeSantis, a Republican who tried to unseat Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in 2007.

So you mean changing the outward form of government did nothing to alter the underlying culture? No shit. Next you'll be telling me that Democrats and Republicans BOTH cater to entrenched financial interests. I mean, who could have seen this coming? 

Well, Tom Flaherty, for one. 

The former city controller (who is now a county judge) was a leading critic of the home-rule movement. And while the story doesn't mention him, it does confirm a few of his suspicions.

Some of Flaherty's fears were off-base: Flaherty was convinced that the whole reform was a Trojan horse to facilitate a Republican Party takeover of government. Obviously, that didn't happen ... or else DeSantis wouldn't sound so downbeat. 

But I do recall Flaherty having sport with the part-time county council, mocking the notion that "citizens would throw down their plows, go vote on a multi-million-dollar budget appropriation, and then return to their fields." (That's not an exact quote, but it gets the gist.) Flaherty's critics like to portray him as a hack, but the guy understood power and how it works. And he clearly saw a problem identified in today's P-G: The county executive would hold all the power, and county council would be a joke by comparison. 

Morton Coleman, who is about as saintly as you can be if you want to know something about politics, put it this way: "We made County Council a part-time body with very minimal pay because we wanted citizens who would not be driven by political ambition and would be genuinely interested in government. I think that was pretty naive."

Me too.

Here's the problem: People who are genuinely interested in government are rare to begin with -- because for the most part, government is often not genuinely interesting. Yes, there's a chance to make a difference in people's lives, to improve society, or to inflict your elitist secular humanism upon Americans whose values you despise. But the path toward such goals can be excruciatingly dull. Ask anyone who has sat through a zoning-board hearing. 

Of course, many people do volunteer to serve on the zoning board, God love 'em, or to be school board members or township supervisors. But as miserable as those jobs are, I can understand a desire to take them on.

Those posts are narrowly focused on a particular community -- and often a particular sphere of community life. They deal in issues that hit "close to home" -- school-board members have to pay for any tax increase too. What's more, the job could be manageable even for a part-timer: You're focused on just one set of issues, just one community. And within that limited sphere, you have some genuine power. You get to be the final word on choosing a superintendent, or setting tax rates.

By contrast, consider county council. You represent numerous communities, many of which you probably have only a limited  connection with. You will deal with issues of such breadth and complexity that staying abreast of them would be a full-time job. Which you aren't being paid for, beyond a small yearly stipend of $9,000. And even if you manage to stay on top of all those issues, you're just one vote of 15, subject to veto.

Coleman himself raised some of these concerns way back in 2001. And the miracle, really, is that council does as much worthwhile stuff as it does. (Council president Rich Fitzgerald mentions some accomplishments in the P-G story, and I'd add one he omits: It was county council that spawned an anti-discrimination ordinance that Onorato never proposed on his own.) We probably have more decent folks on the legislature than we have a right to expect. 

But even if we didn't, would it be any surprise if the people attracted to council are attracted for the "wrong" reasons? If you were attracted to politics for the "right" ones -- to make a difference, to scoff at the values of regular Americans, etc. -- would county council be the first job you'd pick? I'm not sure even Mark DeSantis would. After all, he's been named as a likely GOP contender for county executive. I don't hear anyone mentioning him in connection with a $9,000-a-year council seat.

But at least he's thinking of running. No one in his whole party even bothered to run against Dan Onorato in 2007. The GOP also didn't run candidates for the countywide offices of County Controller, District Attorney, or County Treasurer.

DeSantis grouses that "the politicians and the system remain the same." But how can you blame the "system" when your political party doesn't field anyone different? The P-G quotes Jim Roddey griping that "the current council has essentially become a rubber stamp." So who's fault is that? Roddey has long been a GOP fixture -- chair of the party as well as a county executive in his own right. If his problem is that Republicans can't field viable challengers, maybe that says as much about him as about the people sitting on council.

If I'm singling DeSantis out here, it's only because he's an articulate spokesperson for a broader view. At one point, he tells the P-G that "There has always been this conventional wisdom in this region that if you change the structure of government, things will get better." That point of view was indeed espoused by the Allegheny Conference and others who pushed home rule. But when you think about it, the idea that "things will get better" simply by moving furniture around smacks of magical thinking.

Really, the Allegheny Conference crowd  took the same approach to government reform as they did to local sports teams. In both cases, the idea was -- if you build it, they will come. If you build a new ballpark for the Pirates, the team will become more competitive. If you build a new government, meanwhile, people will compete to be a part of it. 

Obviously, it isn't that easy. It takes more than some extra luxury boxes for the Pirates not to suck. And it takes more than a rejiggered office floorplan to get people invested in their government. 

What it boils down to is a problem I've discussed in a post even longer than this one. We have an anemic, burned-out local political culture, one that lacks the critical mass necessary to serve as the "loyal opposition." Inside city limits, it's easy to chalk that up to the fact that it's a one-party system. But countywide there are plenty of GOP bastions ... so maybe the problem is bigger than some "city Democratic machine."

Don't get me wrong: I'm not opposed to reforms. Scrapping some row offices was a fine idea. But if you want to change government, you also have to run somebody for the offices that still exist.

Would making county councilor a full-time job change matters? My own logic suggests the answer is "no." Like I said before, the GOP can't drum up interest in running for county treasurer, a job that pays $66,500 a year.  And the cynic in me assumes that creating a full-time paying job would just attract more hacks, except their very livelihood could depend on them toeing the line.

But saying "oh, that post just appeals to political hacks, not the people we need in office" seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. And you really start upping the stakes once you talk about fusing city government into the county -- as some people are. Assuming that county voters can elect inept officials just as easily as city voters can, wouldn't you want a legislature that can act as a viable check on executive authority? Can we afford not to change a system, if even its original champions say is too prone to hacks?

What are these reformers -- afraid of change or something? 


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