Structure & Management in New York Towns
The responsibilities and powers of town officials in New York State are outlined in the state Constitution, other state statutes and town-made laws. Collectively, these laws provide the organizational and management structure for the conduct of the public’s business in the Town of Colden.
America’s Three-Branch Government Model
Every high school student learns that in America the powers exercised by federal, state and local officials are to be limited by a system of checks and balances among the branches of government. Here is a passage from a typical high school textbook, Government Alive: Power, Politics and You, used by students at the Springville Griffith Institute located in Springville, New York:
“The Constitution divides power in the national government among the three separate branches. This separation of powers was a key component in the framers’ vision of limited government. James Madison wrote, ‘The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands…may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.’
“The framers took this principle a step further by inserting provisions in the Constitution that would allow each branch to check, or limit, the power of each of the other branches.”
Among the more familiar checks are: the ability of the executive branch to veto bills passed by the legislature; legislature approval and oversight of executive branch spending plans; and a judicial branch empowered to rule on the legality of executive branch and legislative branch actions.
In Washington, for example, a court has ruled that members of the House of Representatives have the authority to sue President Obama over a healthcare spending dispute, claiming that the president’s expenditures have not been appropriated by the Congress.
Since 1789, this federal three-branch model has been widely adopted nationwide and in New York State.
New York State
The three-branch model in Albany includes: a two-chamber legislature consisting of the Assembly and the Senate; an elected governor serving as the chief executive of a 160,000-person executive branch; and a unified, statewide court system adjudicating disputes involving the state’s Constitution and other state and local laws.
Governor Cuomo’s January 2017 veto of a bill passed by the state legislature that would have transferred certain legal costs now incurred by counties to the state, is an example of checks and balances at work in New York State.
Erie County’s three-branch government includes a single chamber, 11 member county legislature; an elected county executive officer in charge of the county’s 4,000- person executive branch; and the statewide unified court system adjudicating disputes arising from the NYS Constitution, state and local laws.
In July 2016 Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz vetoed a legislature’s bill proposing changes to the county’s charter. Poloncarz told the Buffalo News that he opposed the bill because it would weaken his authority over the county attorney’s office and strengthen the legislature’s power by extending legislators’ term in office from two to four years.
The introduction of the three-branch model in Erie County is a relatively recent event. The Erie County Legislature’s website tells us that, “Up until 1961, legislative and executive powers in Erie County were combined in the Board of Supervisors…[but]…With the adoption of the Charter [form of government in 1959], Erie County established a traditional form of legislative, executive and judicial separation of powers which is common to all other levels of government.”
Well, not exactly. Let’s take a closer look at the Town of Colden.
Town of Colden
Unlike both New York State and Erie County, in two significant ways the Town of Colden’s government structure deviates from the traditional three-branch model.
First, state law does not provide for a separate executive branch in town governments. The same five-member (part time) elected town board—the state authorized law making body in the town—is also responsible for overseeing the execution of its own laws and the implementation of the town’s services and programs. This knocks one leg out from under the three-branch model by eliminating an independent town executive branch, staffed with trained officers authorized to challenge laws passed by the town’s law making board.
In the event the Colden town board passes an ill-advised bill or improperly implements its own laws, or purposefully fails to implement its own laws, there is no independent town office to veto the bill or to otherwise challenge such mismanagement.
Second, since the town’s independent judicial branch—a component of the statewide, unified court system—is not actively in the business of holding town officers accountable, another leg of the three-branch model is lost.
To be fair, to function as a check on the performance of the town board, the Colden Town Court justices depend on county local law enforcement officers, in conjunction with county prosecutors, to bring cases alleging town misdeeds before the court. It is not the Colden court’s fault that the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and the Erie County District Attorney’s Office have little or no interest in investigating and prosecuting cases involving the performance of small town public officials .
In larger municipalities newspaper and broadcast media investigative reporters, often using anonymous tips, routinely expose public misdeeds. These reports then lead to further inquiry by law enforcement investigators and prosecutors. This watchdog resource for keeping public officials accountable is generally missing in small rural towns.
To sum up, the Founders’ three-branch model of checks and balances to guard against too much power vested in too few hands has been abandoned in the Town of Colden as well as in 931 other towns in New York State. What takes the place of the all-American, three-branch model of government in the Town of Colden, is a one-branch unit of government that concentrates political power, unchecked, in a single administrative body.
One explanation for the absence of the three-branch model in the Town of Colden is offered by the New York Department of State’s Division of Local Government Services. On its website we learn:
“There are 1607 general purpose local governments in New York State, each with its own governing body and taxing authority. These have evolved in response to legislative initiatives enacted when residents wanted to be physically close to their elected representatives because travel was time-consuming and arduous…these considerations may no longer be relevant, yet we retain the legacy of a fragmented and unsustainable system of governance.”
A 2006 report from the Office of the New York State Comptroller. titled, Outdated Municipal Structures: Cities, Towns and Villages, 18th Century Designations for 21st Century Communities adds these historical insights:
“Starting from scratch, no expert or group of experts would design the ‘system’ of local government operating in New York State today…Ironically, the last major change to the rules of the game—the municipal home rule and annexation changes enacted in 1963—generally served to preserve the existing geographical municipal structure.”
Submitted by Ronald Fraser, Small Town Civics administrator
Copyright 2017 Ronald Fraser All Rights Reserved
[whohit]In Search of Democracy Part V[/whohit]