Last month the legislature introduced three separate amendments to the Chautauqua County Charter, which have been recommended by the County Charter and Administrative Code Review Commission.
One of the charter amendments involves increasing the term-length for the 19-member legislative body from two to four years, starting January 2018. If the legislature were to approve the amendment during this month’s meeting, it would then go up for a county-wide public vote on this year’s general election ballot.
The amendment has already received the support of many members of the legislature, including current Chairman Jay Gould (R-Ashville), who told WRFA last month that a lack of contested races in recent elections has led to the recommended change. Others have pointed out that running for reelection every two years takes time away from legislators doing the actual business of the county.
Not everyone is in support of the amendment. Current Jamestown city council president and SUNY JCC political science professor Greg Rabb says that there is a very important reason why the legislative branch has traditionally had a two-year term and extending it would be damaging for representative democracy.
“The legislative branch is supposed to be closest to the people,” Rabb explained during a recent interview on WRFA’s Community Matters program. “Not to get too theoretical, but if you look at the U.S. Constitutional and Article 1, the Congressional article, the House – the branch closest to the people – is supposed to have a two-year term. The president is supposed to have a four-year term and then the Senate – which was originally to be chosen by the state legislature – was to have a six year term. So there was a need for one of the branches at all times to be as close to the people as possible.”
Rabb said that the concept outlined in the Constitution has since been included in many state and local governments, where the legislative branch has shorter terms in order to remain close to and accountable to the people.
“So from a political science perspective, my objection to a four-year term would be, ‘Who’s going to be closest to the people?’ I think it’s a mistake to pull that branch away from the people,” Rabb said.
Rabb also said that he’s not even sure why the legislature is considering the amendment since there hasn’t been any outcry from the public regarding term lengths.
“What I would say to my friends in the Chautauqua County Legislature is get me a drug treatment facility in Jamestown. Turn Route 60 into a four-lane highway. And get the state to start subsidizing public education so low-income people can afford it,” Rabb said. “They want issues? I have three big issues and I’m sure other residents do too. And instead of working on [those] they’re going to focus their time on this bologna that’s not going to affect anybody? Come on. This is why I want them to have two-year terms… nobody’s clamoring for this four-year stuff. I’ve never had a constituent say to me, ‘Why don’t you guys have four-year terms?'”
Another local official who hasn’t endorsed the proposed change is County Executive Vince Horrigan, who was asked about the amendment during a recent interview with WRFA.
“I understand the idea. It is challenging to run every two years plus it takes a while to learn the business, but I would say this: my experience was that when I ran for county executive, at the same time several legislators ran and we were able to make some significant change involving the Chautauqua County Home. Whether you liked that changed or not I think, we have to be careful that we don’t lock people in too long. I think new people that run come with fresh ideas,” Horrigan said, adding, “I won’t offer support one way or the other but I do see both sides of it.”
Others who support the amendment include the county’s Democratic Committee Chairman Norman Green, whose party currently only has four members in the 19 member legislature. Although Green says he would also prefer to see term limits put in place for lawmakers, saying he’d like to see lawmakers only serve 12 consecutive years on legislative body before being replaced. He said this would create new energy on a regular basis and allow for new ideas to come forward from our county representatives.
Besides the amendment addressing term lengths, another charter amendment to be considered during this month’s meeting include increasing the salaries for the county executive, the county sheriff and the county clerk, starting in 2018. A third charter amendment would involve increasing the amount of votes needed for using the county’s fund balance. Neither of these two amendments would require a public vote if they are passed by the legislature.
All three charter amendments, along with other business of the county, will be considered by the legislature when it meets Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. in the legislative chambers in Mayville. The meeting is open to the public.