Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Study Commission votes to reduce Commissioner salaries in 2012, modify ballot initiative requirements

In a four hour meeting, Wednesday afternoon, the Lancaster County Government Study Commission voted on revisions to their proposed Home Rule Charter that would, among other things, reduce the salaries of the County Commissioners to $55,000 in 2012 and modify the requirements for citizen ballot initiative.

Whether the Home Rule Charter is enacted or not, the position of County Commissioner (of whom there will be five, under the Charter) will remain full time through 2011. If enacted, however, the position would become "part time" in 2012.

Members of the study commission have previously said that they hold a "whatever it takes" view of the expectations of time investment in the County Commissioner position. But the proposed County Administrator will be full time and it is expected that he or she will take some of the more "administrative" functions out of the hands of the Commissioners.

With this in mind, the study commission voted to reduce the salaries of the County Commissioners to $55,000 in 2012 with a salary of $60,000 for the Chairman.

The current yearly salary of the County Commissioners is just over $92,000 with $1,000 more for the Chairman.

Study commission member Jim Bednar disagreed with the majority's decision. "This may be too low to attract the best talent," he said.

Jim Miller, who had offered the motion, said the salaries should start out lower, and force the Commissioners to vote themselves a pay raise if they feel they deserve it.

"As an elected official, stand up and tell the voters that you're taking a pay raise. Don't do this backdoor stuff," Miller said.

Joan Henderson, President of the Hourglass Foundation, asked the Commission to consider changing the requirement for citizen ballot initiative ("full initiative") from one based on elections to one based on census data for the County as a whole. She suggested that the number of required of signatures be 1% of the County population as determined by the last census.

Discussion ensued, with commission member Heidi Wheaton even floating the idea of a flat number for ballot initiative.

Commission member Jim Bednar, who was in the original minority voting against Home Rule, cautioned against making citizen initiative too easy, going so far as to say, "We are a democratic republic. This could lead down the road to democracy and that could lead to other things."

At the end of the day, the commission voted to change the required number of signatures for citizens to place an issue on the ballot from the elections formula to one half of one percent of the County population as determined by the last census.

While the Commission rejected the idea of writing Commissioner election by district into the Charter, they did vote Wednesday to place the question on the November 2011 ballot.

The placement of the ballot question is itself part of the Charter and will only appear if the Home Rule Charter is approved by the voters this November.

"I don't understand why we're doing this," said member Mary Clinton. "Are we saying we don't like what we just did, or we don't know whether we like what we just did?" Either put the proposal in the charter or don't, she suggested.

Commission Member Sam Mecum explained that many of the members voted against the geographic representation proposal not necessarily because they disfavored it in principle, but because they didn't have enough information about what County residents actually want.

Other members, including Bill Saylor, Heidi Wheaton, and Jim Miller, agreed with Mecum's statement and indicated that they are not necessarily closed to the idea.

In other business, Wednesday, the study commission voted to change the title of Article II of the charter from "Legislative Branch" to "Board of County Commissioners" and the title of Article III from "Administrative Branch" (which had previously been titled "Executive Branch) to simply "Administration."

Also, the charter states that the hiring of a County Administrator requires a supermajority vote (at least 4) of the Commissioners. A brief discussion took place, Wednesday, as to whether a supermajority or a simple majority should be required to terminate the administrator.

The vote to change the firing requirement from a supermajority to a simple majority failed 4-3 on concerns about the potential for political foul play.

At one point in the discussion, study commissioner John Smucker asserted that he is "disappointed that [former County Administrator] Mr. [Mark] Esterbrook was pushed out of office for political reasons."

The next meeting of the Government Study Commission is schedueld for August 19.