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  • Last modified 131 days ago (July 15, 2020)

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To vote or not to vote, that is the question

Conversing the other day with one of the candidates for a county office, we dared to ask a question we’ve wondered about for many years.

Why do we need to elect so many different officials in the courthouse? Many of those we elect have little discretion about how their jobs are done.

Even the person we asked admitted — off the record, of course — that elections for some of these positions are little more than popularity contests.

Basically, we elect a bunch of prom kings and queens but have to endure having appointed bureaucrats in positions that seemingly do allow for a lot of discretion.

Imagine what the political season would be like if the position of county engineer or road and bridge superintendent were on the ballot. These days, we might also get quite a campaign going on who is to serve as county health nurse or maybe head jailer and head dispatcher.

It’s reminiscent of how city government used to work. Instead of an appointed administrator, we had commissioners in charge of specific areas — police, finance, and utilities. These days, we’d probably see quite few sparks — literally and figuratively — if a utilities commissioner were to begin standing for election.

This whole notion of not forcing career public servants to have to face voters in a popularity contest that has little to do with their policies or fitness seemed like a good idea — until we realized what would happen to those jobs. They’d become appointed positions filled by the county commission. As much concern as we have for the whims of voters, the whims of commissioners can be much more devastating.

That’s why few people want a county administrator. They look at some of the hires commissioners have made and see that while some are quite good, many are not.

Perhaps the real solution is not to hire an administrator or elect a slew of constitutional officers but rather elect one county executive — essentially, a president for the county, who could be responsible for the entire county bureaucracy. Legislative authority to appropriate money still would reside with commissioners, but they wouldn’t be anyone’s bosses, demanding (seriously or in jest) that officials come in and get their checks handed to them by the people who sign them.

The county executive system has worked quite well elsewhere. Is Marion County bold enough to bring such an experiment to Kansas?

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified July 15, 2020

 

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