Don’t eliminate the county administrator
Not long ago in Colorado, many counties did without hired administrators. The elected county commissioners divided their counties geographically and often ruled their districts as political fiefdoms.
There were scandals, some on the Western Slope, in which commissioners used county equipment and resources for their own benefit or that of their friends. If you were tight enough with your commissioner, you might get some gravel and road work not only for your county road, but for your private drive.
We know that’s not the sort of system Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland envisions when she advocates that this county consider eliminating its county administrator position in favor of a system in which the county commissioners oversee the day-to-day workings of county government.
But, whether you’re talking about dividing the county geographically or departmentally, the potential for serious problems remains. Even commissioners with the best of intentions could have difficulty in a system with no administrator.
Which departments get budget increases and which get cuts? It may depend on who is the most persuasive commissioner or which two work together to protect their departments, not on where the need is greatest for the county. County administrators are supposed to provide that objective countywide perspective.
What if a major political contributor to one of the commissioners has a dispute with a particular county employee in a department supervised by that commissioner? How much pressure will there be on the commissioner to reprimand or fire the employee in question? A county administrator serves as a buffer between county staff members and that sort of political pressure.
Will there be the same standards of employee behavior and customer courtesy throughout the county, or will they vary depending on which commissioners supervise individual departments?
The potential for duplication of services and resources will increase exponentially as commissioners jostle to get more computer help, personnel assistance or vehicles for their departments.
Rowland’s suggestion that direct commissioner oversight of county departments could avoid inconsistent policy implementation isn’t realistic. The potential for inconsistency when there are three different bosses is far greater than if there is only one person issuing directives to department heads.
There would certainly be nominal cost savings in doing without an administrator. Based on recent pay, in Mesa County, it would amount to $125,000 a year, plus benefits and other expenses.
But if the commissioners end up in escalating budget battles as they try to protect their respective departments, if there is increased duplication of equipment and services and decreased efficiency, those initial savings would quickly evaporate.
County commissioners should stick to their broad, policy-making duties. They should leave the executive responsibilities in the hands of a capable county administrator.