The County Board has been functioning as the voice of the people of Westchester County in one form or another since the days when Westchester was still a British colony! The first step toward a formal legislative body came in 1682 when the Governor of the Province called for election of a “general assembly of freeholders with legislative powers.” One of the first orders of business for the General Assembly was the creation of ten counties, one of which was Westchester. During the remainder of British rule, the county was not an important unit of government except as a judicial district, and had extremely limited self-governing powers, vested in a Board of Justices, consisting of five or more justices of the peace.
In 1703, the title of supervisor replaced the office formerly known as town treasurer. When it became necessary to do something countywide, like building a county court house and jail or transacting other business for the general benefit of the towns in a particular county, all of the town supervisors customarily assembled for the purpose of apportioning expenses. This assemblage constituted the origin of the County Board of Supervisors.
Beyond apportioning expenses and auditing county accounts, the Board of Supervisors had few powers until after the Revolution when the Board of Justices was abolished. The Board of Supervisors took over the Board of Justices and inherited their limited powers of legislation.
Until the mid 1800’s, most local legislative issues were handled at the state level. The necessity for a modernized form of county government, closer to home, that could better manage the needs of a burgeoning population became apparent. In 1846 and 1892, the state constitution was amended to expand the role of county government and the authority of the state’s county boards was significantly expanded.
Recognizing that they had to reform government to accommodate the principles of “home rule,” the state legislature appointed a commission in 1914 to study the whole question of county government. Westchester’s Board of Supervisors, in turn, appointed the “Westchester County Government Commission” to formulate a county charter.
A series of commissions met between 1915 and 1937 and recommended various versions of a county charter. All were either vetoed by the governor or defeated by voters in a countywide referendum. Finally,in the general election of 1937, voters approved the Westchester County Charter which defined and expanded the powers and duties of the Board of Supervisors and established the office of the County Executive.
By the late 1960’s, population patterns in the County had changed significantly; rapid population increases in the cities and suburbs of the southern section of the county dramatically outpaced the still sparsely settled northern areas. For example, in 1966, the Town of Greenburgh, with 83,000 people, had the same representation on the Board of Supervisors as North Salem, with 3,000 people. The Town of Greenburgh brought the matter to the courts to resolve. Greenburgh argued that the current makeup of the Board of Supervisors was unconstitutional because it violated the “one man, one vote” principle established by the United States Supreme Court in a previous decision.
The courts agreed with the Town of Greenburgh. As a result, the 45-member Board of Supervisors was abolished by court order and replaced in 1970 with our current legislative body, the County Board of Legislators, composed of 17 members elected every two years. Each legislator represents approximately 50,000 people and after every federal census, each of the legislative districts must be adjusted to maintain the balance of power in accordance with the ‘one man, one vote’ principle.