New Castle News

Mitchel Olszak

January 23, 2012

Mitchel Olszak: Is county ready for change in government?

NEW CASTLE — In Voltaire’s classic story “Candide,” the character Pangloss makes a frequent observation:

“This is,” he says, “the best of all possible worlds.” Everything is wonderful, so why attempt to make things better?

But as one horrific misfortune after another strikes in “Candide,” the reader quickly realizes that Pangloss is a fool, and his depiction of an idyllic world falls far short of reality.

If he were around today, I am sure Pangloss would have plenty of nice things to say about Lawrence County government. It’s a system that routinely touts its supposed achievements. But upon inspection, you find that it is seriously flawed.

Further evidence of this has cropped up in recent weeks. First, there was the annual meeting of the county’s salary board, where double-digit pay raises were handed out to select personnel in a wave of surprising generosity.

Then came last week’s organizational meeting of the county’s prison board, where the main order of business was selecting a president for the panel. But not one of the seven elected officials who serve on the board was willing to take the post.

Various excuses were offered, but perhaps the most honest came from county Commissioner Steve Craig, who apparently sensed some risk in the position.

“I have no intention of putting my neck out there on the chopping block for the amount of activity that is encouraged by the daily newspaper,” Craig explained. It seems that Craig’s main goal in office, now that he has been re-elected, is to keep his head down and avoid having his name show up in the New Castle News.

Yet if avoiding publicity is Craig’s desire, a better move would be to resign his county position — with its salary, benefits and taxpayer-supported pension — and seek employment in the private sector. Then he could enjoy blissful anonymity as the rest of us forget all about him.

But no one simply ups and quits an elected county position. The financial rewards are too great. Taxpayers shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in salaries, benefits and other expenses for elected offices in county government. And the result is a system where inefficiency at the top perpetuates itself.

If you look at a flowchart of county government, you will see a structure that defies logical explanation — unless you first realize its main goal is patronage, rather than public service.

Three commissioners serve as both the executive and legislative branches, allowing all sorts of decision making to take place out of the public eye.

Then there are the assorted row officers, elected positions that are technically the equal of the commissioners. Citizens get to vote for the holders of these offices, even if they don’t know what the responsibilities are or how to gauge performance.

Plus, county government includes quirky little side operations, such as salary board and prison board, where various elected officials convene and at times actually select someone to run meetings. These panels allow for expanded input, but they also make it easier for participants to deny accountability.

No business would structure itself the way county government does. In fact, no other level of government does so. It’s an operation that’s outmoded and ultimately self indulgent, crying desperately for reform.

There have been two attempts to restructure Lawrence County government in the past decade. For different reasons, both failed.

The most recent of these involved the creation of a voter-approved government study commission in 2007. That commission was poorly conceived and never produced a plan for voters to review.

Yet citizen support for the study demonstrated that the people of Lawrence County are open to change. And there’s no time like the present to begin the process of launching a new study and reform effort. Because voters did not reject the last study effort, another can be pursued immediately.

Doing so is an ambitious undertaking. Pennsylvania politics is notoriously unfriendly to citizen-driven change, and the laws establishing government studies and referendums to replace existing systems are cumbersome. To succeed, these initiatives require significant grassroots efforts, and a considerable commitment in time by those heavily involved.

But if Lawrence County is to have a government that is more open, more accountable and more inclined to look outward than inward, the effort must be made. Otherwise, the current clumsy and outmoded system will remain in place.

At the conclusion of “Candide,” Voltaire cautions us that in life, we must take care to “cultivate our garden.” Well, there are plenty of weeds in the garden of Lawrence County government, and it’s up to the people of the community to pluck them out.

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Mitchel Olszak
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