Citizen-run Westchester County Charter Revision Commission at Center of Initiative to Improve County Government

12/16/2009 2:05:34 PM

 

 

(White Plains, NY) ~ In an action that could profoundly affect how county government operates, Westchester County Board of Legislators Chairman Bill Ryan (D-WF, White Plains) today announced the launching of Westchester Renewed, a far-reaching initiative centered on a citizen-run Westchester County Charter Revision Commission.  “The Westchester County Charter hasn’t undergone a complete and systematic review since it was approved by the voters in a countywide referendum in 1937,” remarked Ryan.  The Charter defined and expanded the powers and duties of the legislature and established the office of the County Executive.  Explaining his decision to move forward with Charter Review, Ryan said “It’s time to take a thorough look at how Westchester County government is running, how it operates and how it can be improved.  What steps should we take to right-size our government? How can we streamline its operation and make it more efficient and less expensive.  We need to come up with a revised Charter that reflects today’s realities and tomorrow’s hopes.”  Ryan noted that some counties, both in New York and in other states, require that their charters be regularly reviewed. He cited as an example Suffolk County, where such reviews are conducted every 10 years. “We’re way overdue,” he stated.

 

Westchester’s Charter Revision Commission would be made up of members representing a cross-section of the county, reflecting the resident taxpayer, business, non-profit, labor and government sectors of the Westchester community. It would examine structural innovations for, and alternatives to the current form and structure of County government. Recommendations would be submitted to the Board of Legislators for implementation or, depending on what’s proposed, brought before voters in a referendum.  “Westchester Renewed will give people the appropriate tools to really accomplish meaningful and legal changes in county government,” Ryan said.  

 

The Charter Revision Commission shall be composed of total of 31 members to be appointed as follows:

 

  • Each of the seventeen County Legislators shall individually appoint one (1) member to the Commission 
  • The Chairman of the County Board of Legislators shall also appoint one (1) additional member to serve as the Chairperson of the Charter Revision Commission
  • The Westchester County Executive shall appoint two (2) members to the Commission
  • The County Clerk, District Attorney, Chief Administrative Judge of the 9th Judicial District shall each appoint one (1) member to the Commission
  • By a majority vote of the County Board of Legislators, one (1) member shall be appointed from each of the following seven organizations: the Westchester County League of Women Voters, the Westchester Putnam Central Labor Body, the Civil Service Employees Association, the State Association of School Boards, Westchester County Municipal Officials Association, the Business Council of Westchester, and the Westchester County Association, and one (1) member from a non-profit agency providing services in Westchester County 

Acknowledging that “there have been a number of responsible proposals for improving county government,” Ryan noted that most have taken certain things for granted. “They’re based on the two-branches of county government—legislative and executive—that currently exist in Westchester,” Ryan explained. “Instead, any study for real change should start at the root and ask what form of government would be best for Westchester.”  Many counties in New York State have no county executive and until the late 1930’s, Westchester was among them. “There’s no requirement that a county have an executive branch for day-to-day management,” Ryan said.  “Some counties have an appointed administrator and some have just a legislature.  The Charter Revision Commission should examine all the alternative forms and come up with a recommendation. If it recommends changing Westchester’s two-branch government, the people will have a chance to decide in a countywide public referendum.”

 

Ryan said other types of issues that could be considered include:

 

  • Consolidating/merging/eliminating various county departments and functions
  • Centralizing various services now handled by municipalities; consolidation of local functions and programs and regional service delivery as needed
  • Turning over certain discretionary county services to local municipalities and/or community based organization
  • Reducing the size of the Board of Legislators; changing the form of the legislative body
  • The need for and composition of a Board of Acquisition and Contract
  • Establishing an Office of County Comptroller 

The role and structure of the Board of Legislators should also be examined.  “The county legislature is required under State Law,” Ryan said. “Because of this, abolishing it is not an option and certain of its functions and responsibilities cannot be altered. However, the size and composition of the legislature and the way it operates can certainly be changed if that’s deemed appropriate.  Should the county have a 17-member board of legislators or a legislative body with some lesser number of representatives?  What about a five or seven member board of county commissioners?  What is the difference?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of all the available options?”

 

Ryan also said that doing away with Westchester county government was not an option to be explored. “Those who argue for this obviously know nothing about local, county or state government,” Ryan said. “New York is run through counties, Getting rid of Westchester county government would require getting rid of county governments throughout the state. Anyone arguing for that can speak to their state representatives. This Commission is designed to be productive, generating real options that could improve our government and deliver benefits to our residents and taxpayers sooner rather than later.  The Commission would not engage in meaningless exercises.”

 

Westchester Renewed will be independent of county government, except for the responsibility of county government to see to it that it has the resources it needs to function.  That includes reasonable funding for consulting and support services.  Fortunately, organizations such as the New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC) can be relied upon to share background information and research on county government organization and service delivery at no cost to taxpayers. “The Commission will be able to draw on studies that have already been conducted so they don’t waste time re-inventing the wheel.  NYSAC’s resources will be very helpful,” Ryan said. “In addition, the Commission could also seek input and resources from the National Association of Counties (NACo) and other national organizations of county government officials so they can have the broadest perspective possible.”

 

The Commission will also review the work of Westchester 2000—an earlier citizen study on consolidation of government services—to see if any of its recommendations should be reintroduced. That group looked at Charter revision, although that wasn’t its primary charge. 

 

“The Commission will have an excellent opportunity to be a catalyst for people to become more involved in county government,” Ryan said. He added he would ask the Commission to hold open meetings in different parts of the county to discuss its work and get public input.  Ryan said the Westchester Library System (WLS) should be approached and asked if network libraries around the county could serve as Commission meeting sites.  WLS would also be of great value in helping to conduct an on-going informational and educational campaign for county residents, enabling them to “learn more about county government and to actively participate in Westchester Renewed,” said Ryan.

 

“The Charter is the people’s document and the people should be the ones to recommend changes that reflect how they want to be governed,” Ryan said. “The Commission shouldn’t shy away from looking at anything that, under the state constitution, can be done. A government must never be afraid of examining itself and asking hard questions.”