Sunday, November 7, 2010

Ulster County Charter Adoption Turns 4

On November 7, 2006 the voters of Ulster County transformed government by adopting a charter that fostered transparency and accountability.

Lines were quickly drawn with both sides voicing strong opinions for and against the change.

Here's a FREEMAN look back at what they said. You tell me if it's working.

By Katie Young

THE PROPOSED Ulster County charter is pushing its way to the forefront of Tuesday's local election scene as more and more "Vote Yes" and "Vote No" signs pop up near traffic lights and on front yards.

Ulster County would be led by an elected full-time executive rather than a part-time Legislature chairman if the charter is approved. The change would take effect in 2009.

The executive would have the authority to appoint and supervise the heads of each of the county's departments, and they would serve at the pleasure of the executive. The executive also would be the point person responsible for the county's entire budget.

Also under the charter, the county's current appointed administrator and elected treasurer would be replaced by an appointed commissioner of finance and an elected comptroller. The Legislature, in turn, would relinquish most of its administrative duties and become a policy-making body, though it would be charged with approving the executive's appointments and expenditures.

Legislators voted 27-1 in August to put the charter proposal on the ballot, but the public's opinions are far more varied.

The county Chamber of Commerce, the Committee for Good Government and Pathway to Progress have filed financial statements with the Board of Elections that state support for the charter, while the Coalition Against the Charter filed a disclosure statement opposing the document.

Kevin Roberts, a member of the Coalition Against the Charter and chairman of the county's Resource Recovery Agency, said he opposes the charter because of the political ramifications of its powerful county executive and because of the unknown financial impact.

"You're going to get a county executive elected, (and) one of his responsibilities is to get re-elected, and there (will) be a lot of outside influences trying to bring big money into it to influence the process," Roberts said.

Emily Johnson, a longtime member of the League of Women Voters, said the league supports the charter because it allows citizens to hold the maximum amount of possible control over their county government.

William West, a Republican who formerly chaired the county Legislature and now is a member of the Coalition Against the Charter, is proposing a county manager instead of an executive.

"I don't think anybody disagrees with the fact that we have to move forward with a change. I just think the county executive that's proposed is not the best one," West said. "We're urging people to come out and vote 'no' and give us some time to compose a document that would give the county a good-government charter as opposed to the political charter being proposed at this time."

"I think the decision process with a manager will be just as muddled as it is today," said Everton Henriques, a member of the county's now-disbanded Charter Commission. He said the county executive will be accountable to the people and must perform well in order to be re-elected.

The Legislature chairman is elected only by residents of his district and then is chosen for the leadership post by fellow lawmakers.

Legislature Minority Leader Glenn Noonan said it's difficult to gauge whether a county executive or county manager would be preferable.

"(With an) executive, you're getting an elected official with a vested interest in the county. It doesn't mean they have the know-how," said Noonan, R-Gardiner. "Whereas with a manager, you have someone with the know-how, with qualifications, but probably not a vested member of the community."

"What set me off was the fact that there was a refusal to have a debate about the cost (of the charter's mandates), because it's not hard to come up with the information," said James Quigley, treasurer for the Coalition Against the Charter, which put up 750 "Vote No - No to New Taxes" signs across the county.

Joan Lawrence-Bauer, chairwoman of the Chamber of Commerce's board of directors, disagrees with the coalition.

"We believe it is absolutely false to say taxes will go up if the charter is passed," Lawrence-Bauer said. "We believe it will stem the tide of businesses that are fleeing from the county and encourage new businesses to come in."

"The only thing you can deal with with the cost is a guesstimate of what you'd pay for an executive and what it might cost for support help," said John Dwyer, another member of the former Charter Commission and a former Democratic legislator. "I think the savings will far outweigh the cost without a doubt."

Gerald Benjamin, chairman of the former Charter Commission, which spent two years researching and crafting the first draft of the document, said the state comptroller's office shows Ulster spent $142.32 per capita from 1993-2004 compared to an average of $119.89 in the chartered counties of Oneida, Rensselaer, Chemung, Orange, Dutchess, Broome, Putnam and Chautaugua.

Benjamin, a Republican, also is a former chairman of the Ulster County Legislature.

West argues that counties with managers save even more money. He cites Saratoga and Schenectady counties, which, according to the comptroller's office, spend an average of $127 per capita from 1993-2004 compared to $173 in the similarly sized Dutchess and Orange counties, which both have charters.

West and New Paltz Supervisor Toni Hokanson, a Democrat, warn of the charter resulting in a political machine and wish voters had more time to digest the 73-page document.

Bonnie Hewitt, chairwoman of the Ulster County Conservative Party, which has about 2,400 members, opposes the charter on grounds that it will create another layer of government.

"We do not feel that the people of Ulster County can afford to pay any more taxes for more levels of bureaucracy," Hewitt said.

GARY Bischoff, chairman of the county Legislature's Efficiency, Reform and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, which revised the charter draft before presenting it to the Legislature, said the charter will not another layer of government.

"It is a dual role between the executive and the Legislature working in conjunction, each with the ability to overrule the other at the same level," said Bischoff, D-Saugerties. "A single elected county executive would have much greater clout in Albany as a voice for Ulster County, and that strong voice would also help with economic development and recruiting companies."

The charter proposal will appear on Tuesday's ballot as Proposition 1. If it is approved, the first county executive would be elected in November 2008 and take office on Jan. 1, 2009.

For the charter to be approved, a majority of voters both countywide and in the city of Kingston must vote yes.

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