The Cayuga County Legislature last week made its decision clear. In a 10-4 vote, legislators put on the record that Cayuga County Administrator J. Justin Woods’s tenure as county government’s chief executive is finished.
As difficult as that decision may have been, at least for some legislators, an even more important choice looms — whether or not to keep the administrator position.
In their comments over the past couple of weeks, legislators have offered a range of thoughts on the matter.
This editorial board has long advocated for an administrator or manager to be in place, citing the need for an experienced and proven leader to oversee an operation with a budget that’s now approaching $150 million.
Having said that, there’s no denying that this position has been marred by instability since the first hire back in the fall of 2006. A recurring theme has been tension over how much independence the administrator should have to make key operational decisions.
One solution some legislators have floated is to change the county’s governance structure to have an elected executive who is picked by, and directly accountable to, the county’s voting residents.
Another idea is to go back to the system in place before the administrator’s office was established. Under that structure, the Legislature chair also served as the day-to-day CEO and was given a much higher annual salary.
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But before lawmakers start to fall in love with that option, we urge them to do some research into why that system became the unmitigated disaster that finally resulted in an administrator form of government.
In the six budget years prior to an administrator, Cayuga County’s tax levy grew by 53%. In the 12 years since, it went up by 28%.
The horrific financial management was not the only issue. The chair system resulted in a politically charged county government work atmosphere with little or no strategic direction from one department to the next.
Chair-as-executive governance has numerous built-in deficiencies. The talent pool is limited to people who have the time and ability to serve in a full-time capacity; that often means retired or semi-retired people without needed management or financial experience.
It was also a system tainted by backroom politics. Chairs were selected in closed-door caucuses, with the victor often being the person who would dole out the most political favors.
With that in mind, we encourage the Legislature to explore the elected executive route, or further refine the duties and authority attached to the appointed administrator.
But a return to the old Cayuga County government system would be a huge step backward.