Do We Really Need County Government?

Posted March 27, 2012 by paulwolf2
Categories: Government Reform

Tags: ,

As I stated in an earlier post, I recently attended a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara titled “Who Needs County Government and Why?”. The four featured speakers discussed the history of county government in New York State and the services delivered to county residents.

90% of Erie County’s $1.2 billion budget is mandated by the state and federal government, services by law that have to be provided. I understand the importance of these mandated services but I question whether it is necessary to have an entire separate branch of elected government oversee the discretionary expenditure of $120 million.

If you view the minutes of the Erie County Legislature there is not a whole lot going on. There is very little to do regarding the budget as 90% of it is mandated, there are very few local laws passed and their meeting agenda consists of largely receiving and filing coorespondence.

Instead of an Erie County Department of Social Services you could have this department be part of the New York State Department of Social Services. The same could be done with the County Health Dept, Sheriff’s Dept. etc. Parks and Public Works could be taken over by the state or by towns to address county parks and roads in their jurisdictions.

Attorney Jim Magavern stated at the League of Women forum that he supported democracy and having local elected officials make decisions. I support democracy as well but the point is that there is not much for county elected officials to do other than pass symbolic resolutions that seek to generate support and name recognition for re-election to office.

Consider these facts below and express your opinion as to whether we really need county government.

Erie County has a County Executive, County Comptroller, County Sheriff, County Clerk and an 11 member legislature to do the following:

  • The county budget totals $1.2 billion of which only $120 million is controlled by the county. 90% of the county budget is mandated by the state and federal government. (Source County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz)
  • In 2011 the legislature changed $5 million of the county executives proposed budget again not even 1% of the total budget. (source
  • While very few laws were passed in 2011, 393 resolutions honoring individuals and community groups were passed! (Source
  • Connecticut, Rhode Island & Massachusetts have eliminated county government by transferring programs and services to the state, cities and towns. (Source, 5/31/11)
  • In March of 2010, Robert Bondi after 19 years of serving as Putnam County Executive questioned whether a county executive and county legislature were needed and whether a less expensive form of government can do the job. (Source 3/11/10)
  • The wealthy county governments of Rockland, Suffolk, Nassau and Westchester are all experiencing serious budget crisis. Erie County government is operating under a state imposed financial control board.

Recommendations For Improving County Government

Posted March 25, 2012 by paulwolf2
Categories: Government Reform

Tags: ,

The League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara sponsored a forum titled Who Needs County Government and Why? The four speakers were:

Dr. Joseph Stefko, Director of Public Finance, Center for Government Research, Rochester, NY

James Magavern, Esq.

Brenda McDuffie, Executive Director, Buffalo Urban League

Kenneth Vetter, Executive Director, Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority

A history of County government was provided along with an overview of the services provided by County government. The most interesting part of the forum for me is when the speakers were asked what recommendations they had for improving County government.

The recommendations proposed were:

  • County government is the only region wide government and should serve as a facilitator of bringing municipalities together.
  • The State should take over the operation of the Medicaid program which is a huge financial burden on counties.
  • A 4 year financial strategic plan should be developed to guide county operations.
  • Annual reporting of County departmental goals and accomplishments should be reported to the public and reviewed by a citizen board.
  • A professional County Manager with the authority to appoint department heads should be implemented.
  • Merging the City of Buffalo and the County of Erie.
  • Implementing a process of land use planning that requires county review of all land and economic development projects so that the interests of the region as a whole are considered as part of such projects.
  • Consolidation of the multiple municipal economic development agencies into one county wide agency.
  • Implement a process to survey community members as to what services they want and to obtain feedback as to how well county services are being provided.
  • Somehow decrease the political partisanship that exists as doing the right thing is not based on political parties.

What do you think about these recommendations? While I am all for improving County government, I question whether we need County government at all, which I will discuss in my next post.

7 Antidotes To Public Apathy

Posted March 21, 2012 by paulwolf2
Categories: Innovation, Leadership

Tags: ,

Dave Meslin is an interesting activist from Toronto Canada who describes himself as a “professional rable-rouser”. I love the title as we truly need more folks like Dave questioning how government operates.

A common thought given the few number of people that attend public meetings or even bother to vote is that members of the public are simply lazy and not interested in public affairs.

Meslin disagrees with the view point that people are not interested in government or elections. Meslin’s position is that too many obstacles exist making it difficult for people to actively participate in public affairs. In a great 7 minute Ted Talk, Meslin highlights seven obstacles that make it difficult for citizens to participate in government and elections.

If you can’t check out the full video, in the first two minutes Meslin makes a great point as to how dense and unispiring public meeting notices are typically drafted and buried in the legal section of local newspapers. Not a great way to educate and encourage public participation in government.

Some how government officials have to get more creative with public notices and move beyond legal postings only, which in addition to not being very effective are also pretty expensive.

What do you think about Meslin’s 7 antidote’s to public apathy?

12 Signs You Might Be A Bully

Posted March 20, 2012 by paulwolf2
Categories: Leadership

Tags: ,

There has been a great deal of attention focused on the issue of bullying among children. The news media frequently highlights cases of bullying among children that at times result in a child that has been bullied committing suicide.

Bullying among adults especially in the workplace also happens more than it should and is drawing more attention. From my experience becoming an elected official no matter how low on the political ladder, often brings out the worst in people. It is amazing what just a little bit of power can do to some people.

Meghan Casserly, has put together a great series of slides under the title 12 Signs You Might Be A Bully, it should be required reading for all new leaders in government, and in particular elected leaders.

I really do respect how difficult it is to be an elected official and there are some great elected officials that are hard working, innovative and treat people well. There are many elected officials, however that I have encountered and worked with who according to the list put together by Ms. Casserly are bullies.

Am I being too harsh towards elected officials, or has your experience been similar to mine?

A Toilet That Symbolizes Intelligent Municipal Government

Posted March 18, 2012 by paulwolf2
Categories: Innovation, Leadership

Tags: ,

The City of Portland has designed a public toilet that it has patented and is selling to other municipalities. The public restroom contains the following features:

  • Stainless steel anti-graffiti wall panels mounted on a slim-profile steel structure, that weighs a fraction of a typical restroom, making it easier to install in high traffic locations.
  • It is lit by 100 percent solar-powered LED lights equipped with motion sensors for energy conservation.
  • The stainless steel panels are louvered and allow for surveillance by the community (without sacrificing privacy).
  •  The restroom has an exterior handwashing station that helps to deter illicit activity.

Portland has sold one of their restrooms to the British Columbia City of Victoria for $40,000.

“The Portland Loo symbolizes intelligent municipal government,” said Barry Greenfield, editor and publisher of EfficientGov. “The city created a patentable product solving a problem for all municipalities, and similarly, their sales initiative to other cities is an important innovation in government. Generating new revenue helps to alleviate taxpayer reliance. The Loo shows how government can become a profitable resource rather than a net spender.”

Portland officials have taken a very creative and entrepreneurial approach. Should municipal officials be in the business of creating and selling patented products?

Local Governments Need To Embrace The Passion Of Amateurs!

Posted March 15, 2012 by paulwolf2
Categories: Leadership, Open Government

Tags: , ,

One of my favorite quotes is: ”

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

The first edition of Britannica Encyclopedias appeared in Scotland in 1768. In 11 years a group of Internet volunteers has ended the 244 year history of Britannica printed encyclopedias.

Britannica has 100 full-time paid editors and the cost of its printed edition was $1,395. Only 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition, which comes in 32 volumes weighing 129 pounds have been sold, and the remaining 4,000 have been stored in a warehouse until they are bought.

Wikipedia was created 11 years ago and is not organized in any traditional way as the content contained on its web site is all prepared by dedicated passionate volunteers, where it is available for free. Wikipedia doesn’t have a single paid employee responsible for content (writing, editing or any of the sort.).  Wikipedia is more than 10X as big as the New York Times, which has 1,200 employees responsible for writing and editing.

Through dedicated volunteers Wikipedia has worldwide produced more than 17 million articles compared to Britannica’s approximate 100,000, Wikipedia has 365 million readers, and is the 7th most popular website in the world. Total visitors to Britannica’s websites last year numbered 450million. Daily traffic to Wikipedia is around 100million hits, which equates to more than 36 BILLION hits a year.

Chris Anderson, Editor of Wired magazine and author of The Long Tail states:

“In the endless debate about the relative merits of amateurs vs. professionals in a world where the two have equal access to the tools of production, I think people miss a key point:

“Amateurs self-select for the job. Professionals are selected. For most jobs, volunteers beat draftees. I’ll take a passionate amateur over a bored professional any day.”

No one imagined that several thousand volunteers interested in writing encyclopedia articles could contribute the amount of free quality work they did for Wikipedia. People are passionate about their communities and their local governments. Wikipedia makes it easy for people to contribute their time and ideas, local governments need to do the same.

Local governments need to embrace the passion of amateurs!

If The Office Is Not A Good Fit, Sometimes You Have To Quit

Posted March 14, 2012 by paulwolf2
Categories: Leadership

Tags: ,

Work matters. We spend a great deal of our lives at work. It is important that you get meaning and satisfaction from your job, whatever your job may be.

If your boss is a jerk or if your opinions do not matter or if the values that are important to you are an issue, some times it is worth it to walk away.

Greg Smith, after 12 years of employment at Goldman Sachs wrote a resignation letter explaining why he was quitting. Some of the reasons cited by Smith were:

  • The company which in the past had a great culture is now focused on making money and not on what is best for clients.
  • Obtaining a leadership position in the company was once based on ideas, doing the right thing and serving as an example to others is now solely focused on how much money you bring into the firm.
  • For Smith building a client’s trust long-term and serving their needs was most important to him rather than a short sighted focused on making money. With trust and good client service, money will follow.

The bottom line for Smith was that working for Goldman Sachs “… just doesn’t feel right to me anymore”.

I had a decent paying job as General Counsel to the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority with a pension and medical benefits, but the corruption and raw politics that I saw there at the expense of public housing tenants sickened me. It reached a point for me as well that it just didn’t feel right to stay any more.

Today I am much happier as a self-employed attorney where I have the freedom and ability to create my own work environment.

I understand that not everyone has the ability to just walk away from a bad employment situation, but sometimes for your own sanity and principles it is the right thing to do.

Have you ever walked away from a job that was not a good fit for you?

Enforcing Freedom of Information Laws

Posted March 12, 2012 by paulwolf2
Categories: Open Government

Tags: ,

I believe strongly in the public’s right to obtain information through freedom of information laws. As General Counsel to the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, I had the responsibility of responding to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. Responding to such requests can be incredibly time consuming, a more pro-active approach is to make as much information available on-line through the power of technology and the Internet.

We are fortunate in New York State to have the New York State Committee on Open Government, headed up by Robert Freeman. Mr. Freeman is extremely accessible by e-mail and telephone for advisory opinions regarding FOIL matters. I have contacted Mr. Freeman in my capacity with the Buffalo Housing Authority and as a concerned citizen for his opinion on FOIL and open meeting issues.

Jim Heaney a former Buffalo News reporter has a post up about the difficulty he and other reporters have had in obtaining information requested through FOIL. The Albany-Times Union has had similar issues.

Having the legal right to obtain information through FOIL is a great tool but if this right is being thwarted through stone walling or just simply refusing to respond, then perhaps citizens need additional measures.

The state of Connecticut, has a nine-member panel that hears nearly 800 complaints a year from the public over alleged abuses by public officials of its Freedom of Information laws. The sides present their arguments to the panel, and then a ruling is made on whether the information under dispute should be made public.

As pointed out in a Rochester Democrat & Chronicle article, Pennsylvania started a commission in 2009 that has binding authority to impose the law. The 10-person office, which has a budget of about $1.1 million, has handled about 4,000 cases since it started; all but 200 were resolved without having to end up in the courts.

What is amazing to me as pointed out by the numbers referenced above is how many people want information and have been denied such information requiring the involvement of a panel to decide the matter.

While I generally do not support creating more bureaucracy, I like the idea of creating an Open Government Committee at the local government level. While local governments seem to have many committees and boards (my hometown of Tonawanda, NY, has 28 of them), none that I have seen have an Open Government Committee. Such a committee could encourage government officials to release information in a pro-active manner to reduce the time involved in responding to FOIL requests. An Open Government Committee could also hear disagreements about FOIL requests, similar to what has been done in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, without the expenditure of a large sum of money.

What do you think about forming an Open Government Committee in your community? If you are an elected official or a citizen activist, why not raise such an idea at your next local government meeting?

Leadership Is Achieving Outcomes Through Collaboration

Posted March 11, 2012 by paulwolf2
Categories: Leadership

Tags: , , ,

Getting things done in government requires working with other levels of government, non-profit organizations etc. Mark Funkhouser as the Director of the Governing Institute (a former Mayor of Kansas City), recently watched Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley conduct a session of StateStat, the process he has implemented to make the state’s government more efficient.

As Funkhouser stated in a blog post:

“I had expected more of a pure-management focus on streamlining the internal workings of state government–breaking down silos, improving coordination of state agencies and programs, and holding government managers accountable for measurable improvements. To be sure, there was some of that. But when O’Malley and I talked afterward, I mentioned that I was struck by how much of the focus in the meeting was on working with counties, nonprofits and others to get things done. Yes, he said. “Collaboration is the new competition.”

To accomplish something as an elected or non-elected government official, Funkhouser points out that one needs the following leadership skills:

• Bluntly calling out the issue.
• Setting a challenging goal.
• Accepting accountability for achieving the goal.
• Convening the players who can impact some part of the issue.
• Engaging in dialogue about the costs and consequences of the issue and a path forward.
• Creating transparency by continually collecting and publishing data on the issue.
• Consistently following through.

I see a lot of elected officials that lack the ability or discipline to bring players together to dialogue on an issue and who fail to consistently follow through. Good elected officials understand the importance of collaboration in achieving goals. Collaboration is hard work, but it is the key to achieving outcomes that will improve your community and carry you to higher office if that is your goal.

What do you think about the leadership skills listed above and the importance of collaboration in achieving goals?

Oops: Did He Really Just Say That?

Posted March 8, 2012 by paulwolf2
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: ,

Larry Conley  has a funny post about some misstatements by elected officials that are a good read for a little humor.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently had one of those verbal gaffes that sometimes plague public officials. Hickenlooper, who often favorably refers to his Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia as a “rising star,” instead introduced Garcia as a “rising sex star” to about 40 kids at a Denver elementary school, according to The Denver Post.

Hickenlooper was at the school to promote a literacy initiative. A local radio station recorded the slipup, the newspaper reported, as the governor intoned, “Now I get to introduce that rising sex star….symbol. I mean, symbol — not star.”

After some uncomfortable laughter, Hickenlooper tried to pivot, deadpanning to the group, “This might go down as one of my most difficult press conferences in the history of the office,” according to the Post.

Hickenlooper might take some comfort from the fact that he isn’t the only public official to suffer from a bout of foot-in-mouth disease. In fact, it’s a common ailment among politicians.

There was the time in 2008 when then-Sen. Barack Obama told the crowd at a presidential campaign event in Beaverton, Ore., “I’ve now been in 57 states — I think one left to go.” Or this gem from former Vice President Dan Quayle: “Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.”

Local officials trip over their tongues, as well. Former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barryonce famously queried, “What right does Congress have to go around making laws just because they deem it necessary?”

Hickenlooper isn’t even the only public official to slip over the “s” word. Former President George H.W. Bush once used it in describing his relationship with his predecessor, former President Ronald Reagan. “For seven and a half years I’ve worked alongside him, and I’m proud to have been his partner. We’ve had some triumphs. Made some mistakes. We’ve had some sex – setbacks.”

It’s a wonder that public officials ever open their mouths at all.