By Jonathan P. LaBonte
While it has received little coverage by the mainstream media, a group of elected commissioners continue work on drafting a proposed charter to set the rules for governing Androscoggin County.
The process will involve an additional public hearing once a draft is finalized, and ultimately must pass a countywide vote in all of Androscoggin County. But there is value in attempting to understand where county government has come from before we set forth where it is going.
For those who have spoken with me in my role as County Commissioner for District 2 (Poland, Minot, Mechanic Falls and Auburn), I have made no bones about why I believe Maine moving toward county service delivery and planning is our best opportunity to become competitive on a regional basis.
There are 14 towns and cities in Androscoggin County that create 14 different transportation plans, generate 14 different economic development plans, charge 14 different tax rates and operate 14 different departments in almost every area of government service. To believe that they can be efficient in doing all that is unthinkable.
That being said, I will also be first to point out that the current structure of county government is dysfunctional and inefficient. It is not necessarily because of those at the front lines who are delivering the service, but because of the management structure that dates back to the early 1800s.
If Androscoggin County, through a new charter or the initiative of its towns and cities, is to consider providing regional services in the future, it must first clean up its house and demonstrate it can efficiently use the taxpayer money it currently receives. And what is the greatest challenge in accomplishing that? Elected department heads and management.
With a budget of over $10 million, Androscoggin County does not have a chief administrative official as a full-time staff member. Instead, a part-time, three-member elected board of commissioners oversees all human resources, capital programs and all other factors in the day-to-day operations.
The next level of management is a suite of predominantly elected department heads, including the sheriff, register of deeds, register of probate, judge of probate, district attorney and treasurer.
With a budget of less than a quarter of the county budget, even Mechanic Falls citizens have recognized the value in having an appointed town manager with professional public administration experience at the helm to oversee day-to-day operations. This allows the town council to play a policy-setting role and provide guidance to the town manager.
County government dates back to before towns and cities provided much for services. Back then, the concept of professional government workers was not even close to being on the horizon. State and local leaders determined it was best to elect those with the best qualifications to oversee a jail, the recording of real estate documents and a court dealing with estates.
In the early to mid 1800s, that seemed logical. There was no Muskie School of Public Service to train government workers in the mechanics of union negotiations, human resources, capital planning, workplan budgeting and on and on.
The politics of trying to manage a more than $10 million operation as a three-headed administrator (three part-time commissioners) is cumbersome and inefficient. It does not create a predictable environment for employees, which is a staple of delivering good services to the public through a workforce that has certainty as to their expectations.
However, having department heads elected brings with it even greater challenges. If the county has an appointed administrator and moves commissioners into a policy-setting role, not a day-to-day management responsibility, then that county administrator would have the ability to ?manage? county department heads.
You may hear arguments from some that electing management at the county is the purest form of democracy and should be protected. They will say that these officials are accountable to the people, which is the greatest form of accountability. I say that is the greatest form of rhetoric—and that rhetoric does nothing to keep government spending in line.
Over $10 million of your tax money is spent every year delivering services in Androscoggin County. It is time the taxpayers ask for greater accountability in that spending. That begins with hiring professional management based on qualifications, not popularity.