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As I See It: Checks and balances in jeopardy | Guest Column
By Bud Sears
I have been known around the county for most of the last 38 years, as Bud.
I worked for San Juan County 21-plus years, retiring as facilities manager in 2009. Those who know me well will tell you that I like to keep a low profile and therefore have written few letters to the editor.
But my heart is heavy, and I am almost ashamed to admit that I ever worked for our new Home Rule form of government after reading the outcome of George Johnson’s lawsuit against the county, which gave him a rather large settlement.
Mr. Johnson, formerly the county’s information services manager, and husband of Milene Henley, county auditor, was dismissed for reasons the county administrator stated were justified and provable in court. But the Risk Pool to which the county belongs is known for looking for the easy way out and for avoiding taking a case to court. That put the onus back onto a county that’s already financially strapped.
The county made its decision—not the most ethical—to settle out of court. This just establishes a precedent for more lawsuits that would be equally ridiculous.
George Johnson and Milene Henley, along with others, were instrumental in getting the Home Rule charter placed on the ballot, in part by convincing enough people that this new form of government would be revenue neutral and an improvement. Five years later, we are floundering with even higher expenditures that cannot be attributed solely to the recent economic downfall. We haven’t saved anything by going from three full-time commissioners to six part-time council members, all of whom earn salaries and benefits.
We added another upper tier to government by hiring an administrator and additional support staff, as well.
To offset these costs, many successful Home Rule counties pay their council members stipends only for travel, and for weekly or monthly meetings. Our council should be responsible only for legislative activities and budget approval. The administrator should be responsible for running day-to-day operations and for producing a balanced budget.
Now, we have a few very aggressive individuals attempting to create even more powerful positions for themselves by convincing the Charter Review Commission that some elected positions that manage several county financial departments should become appointed jobs, and that those departments should be managed by one individual, a financial director.
They will tell you that such a move will be more cost effective, but in reality it will be very expensive. I believe it will be difficult to find anyone with the knowledge of the state, federal and local laws that pertain to the function of each separate department. That is what each elected official does now, besides managing daily activities. Why do we need to add yet another tier to county government by adding another high-paid position?
More importantly, if that happens you would give up the right to vote for those positions, and odds are you won’t get it back. Your ability to control your government would then slip another notch. If the department heads who handle valuing your land for tax purposes (assessor), collecting the revenue including taxes (treasurer) and spending the funds (auditor) become appointed positions, you as a taxpayer will have lost the ability to directly affect those monies, and the accountability, and checks and balances upon which our country’s democratic system is based, will have been lost, as well.
I know there will be responses to my opinions, as there should be.
For clarification, my wife, Jan, is in her second term as county treasurer. She is eligible to retire in September and her priority therefore is not keeping her job or having a more powerful position.
Our livelihood doesn’t depend on whether the Charter Review Commission recommends that her position remain an elected one or an appointed one. What matters to us both are the people of San Juan County.
Things are changing faster than many of us might like, but, believe me, the key to a more effective government will not be found in the way that the county settled the George Johnson lawsuit, nor by eliminating your right to vote for key elected positions.
If you love San Juan County as much as I do, let you voice be heard.
— Bud Sears, husband of county Treasurer Jan Sears, is former facilities manager for the county Department of Public Works, retiring two years ago after a 20-plus-year career as a county employee.